The Land Beneath our Feet

SueBlog2The ground level of the house at the southwest corner of 48th and Greenwood just always seemed too high. Not in the sense of the ridges that once ran diagonally across the landscape of Hyde Park, but specifically and oddly too high just in one place. The driveway at the back of the lot was cracked as the land shifted over time, and the garage had weeds growing from its gutters. That all changed last month as excavation began for a foundation for a shiny new garage. What came up with the backhoe was the lost history of one Kenwood family.

The huge pieces of limestone dredged up were the buried remnants of the house built for Charles Hosmer Morse, a 19th century industrialist. Morse began his career as a salesman in New York and moved up the ladder quickly. He came to Chicago to establish the first branch of an enterprise that became known as Fairbanks, Morse & Company.

Architect Mifflin Bell was awarded the commission to design the Morse residence at the time of the Columbian Exposition. A luxurious twenty-room mansion rose on the lot, and the heavy stone of the exterior demonstrated the dominant influence of East Coast architect H. H. Richardson. Charles and Martha Morse filled their rosewood-paneled rooms with custom-made Arts and Crafts style furniture, Tiffany glass, and paintings by American Impressionist artists.

When Morses’ daughter, Elizabeth, married Dr. Richard Millard Genius in 1905, five hundred guests attended the reception at this house, which her father gave the young couple as a wedding present. This was Elizabeth’s residence until her sudden death in March 1928. Three years later, in November 1931, the house was torn down at the request of a presumably distraught Dr. Genius.

The demolition of the house was a point of contention among the family, some raced to save artifacts from the salvage company before they disappeared. Unfortunately, the storage facility that subsequently housed the heirlooms was broken into and many of the rescued items were lost. The remaining works of art, Tiffany pieces, and period clothing are now housed in the Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida.

The Morse property lay vacant until purchased and subdivided by developers and construction of three smaller-scale homes began in 1936. However the original stone wall, with its decorative wrought iron, remains to remind us of the huge Richardsonian Romanesque mansion that once graced this corner.