By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS
When speaking of the recently constructed Logan Center on the south side of the Midway Plaisance, University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer commented that the building would have “a tremendous impact not only on our students, faculty and community, but on the future of the arts in Chicago.” He continued, “Creativity has always been a hallmark of the university and an essential stimulus of the world-changing ideas that have taken root here.”
Artistic creativity has long been characteristic of the Hyde Park and Kenwood communities. From collections amassed by 19th century industrialists flaunted in their Drexel Boulevard mansions, to the oldest art fair in the Midwest that began with art displayed on wire fences, the Logan Center joins a long list of artistically inspired endeavors. For the university, that includes the Renaissance Society that started in 1915, the Court Theater and the Smart Museum of Art founded 40 years ago by the very dapper Smart brothers of Esquire magazine fame. For the community the roots also go deep – the period following the turn of the century and continuing all the way to urban renewal was especially fruitful for the visual and performing arts.
For example, when it was suggested to the young modern dancer Katherine Dunham in 1927 that other tenants in the downtown building that housed her dance studio were “uncomfortable seeing Negroes entering and leaving the building,” she picked up and moved to Hyde Park. The issue for Dunham was not her innovation in combining the study of classical ballet with Indonesian, Caribbean and African dance techniques, but breaking the color barrier at the ballet studios downtown. At her new studio, located at 1538 E. 57th Street, she became part of a Bohemian enclave that welcomed people of diverse backgrounds – all housed in structures that dated to the time of the Columbian Exposition.
Constructed in 1891, these rather flimsy one-story frame buildings were used as concession stands during the World’s Fair. Designed by architect George Beaumont, these one-story spaces became known as the Artists’ Colony and enticed painters, dancers and writers for decades.
Around the turn of the century there was a growing demand for moderately priced stores and studios, and these narrow spaces topped with pagoda-like gables were attractive to rent for lovers of an unconventional lifestyle. Although built without heat, electricity or gas, the spaces gradually filled and eventually attracted national attention. The area became well known when critic, poet and novelist Floyd Dell moved into a converted Chinese laundry. Writers including Theodore Dreiser, Margaret Anderson, Carl Sandburg and poet Harriett Monroe gathered at his studio. (We will explore the haunts of these writers in a separate article.) Dell’s marriage to Margery Currey gave the area an added dimension; she was one of the city’s first feminists. In the spring of 1914 they moved from the North Side into adjoining studios, to foster their experiment with free love and an open marriage.
Their marriage did not last; Dell and Currey divorced and he had moved on to New York’s Greenwich Village by the time Katherine Dunham arrived. Her space was not only dance studio but was also home to The Cube, a vibrant storefront theater. Founded by her brother, in the late 1920s it was a space where African American artists and intellectuals would gather. Artist Charles White’s biography recalls that at the age of 16, he attended a Saturday night party at the Dunhams’ space. There he met poet Gwendolyn Brooks, authors Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, Willard Motley and sociologist Horace Cayton. Rising stars in the Black theater community continued to perform in the space through the Depression years, until The Cube moved away from Hyde Park.
Those living at the colony continued to be an eclectic bunch. After the first wave of artists and writers moved on came a new group, chiefly anonymous, but with an enduring love for their ramshackle spaces. Perhaps a bit too enduring. When a utility company came to erect a pole in the backyard of a studio on the north side of the street, they dug but a foot when they came upon a human skeleton. Apparently one artist’s mother had a fondness for the colony and the backyard became her final resting place. Well, nearly final.
Near the 57th Street Artists’ Colony was another creative enclave known as Cable Court, located a few blocks to the northwest. Cable Court was a short, narrow and dark street, lined with dilapidated three-story buildings. The Hyde Park Art Center had its first space nearby on 57th Street in a refurbished bar next to then Ald. Paul Douglas’ office. First named the Fifth Ward Art Guild, its purpose was defined in 1939 as to “stimulate community interest in art” by providing gallery space and classes. During the World War II, the Center moved to Cable Court, where they occupied a modest affordable studio until 1948. The Center moved again, and then spent eight years in the Artists’ Colony at 1540 E. 57th St.
In the world of dance there was not only Katherine Dunham, but also another of the city’s early modern dancers, Grace Cornell. She and her husband Kurt Graff were internationally acclaimed dancers, and gave lessons and performances in a classically embellished structure on Blackstone Avenue that was known as Graff Studios. The structure is Hyde Park’s own version of the Petit Trianon, constructed in 1938 next to her parents’ home at 5116-5118 S. Blackstone Ave. Grace Cornell was the granddaughter of Hyde Park’s founding father, Paul Cornell.
The ingenuity and resourcefulness extended to other areas of the community and included the stage and architecture. Local residents Kenneth Goodman and Ben Hecht founded the Little Theater in 1916, essentially an amateur theater that produced plays written by Chicago authors. Goodman’s role was a short one — he died of influenza in 1918 — but The Cube continued the work of the Little Theater when it was founded in 1928.
The community’s most famous legacy to theater grew out of acting games and improvisation training for actors. In the early 1950s, a remarkable group of would-be actors formed the Compass Players, performing at the Hi-Hat Lounge at 1152 E. 55th St. The revolution that became Second City and Saturday Night Live had their roots in the early work of Compass performers including screenwriter Elaine May, film director Mike Nichols and movie and television stars Ed Asner and Shelly Berman.
And in the field of architecture, Edgar Miller created exquisitely crafted handmade residences during the late 1920s and early 1930s, often liberally embellished with stained-glass windows, frescoes, murals, mosaics and woodcarvings. Although most prominently known for his work in the Old Town neighborhood, Miller was a key figure among the artists and writers of Hyde Park. He was unconventional, eclectic, even quirky in his approach to architecture and commented: “I accepted influences from anyplace. Every time I saw something that was of value, I absorbed it. Influence is nothing but nourishment and you grow by it. To be afraid of influence is like being scared to eat.”
By the 1940s “art was bursting out all over,” recalled the May 30, 1973 Hyde Park Herald, noting exhibits at the Institute of Design, the Art Institute and the Renaissance Society. Out of this rose Hyde Park’s 57th Street Art Fair, held the first weekend of every June, and one of the oldest in the country. The first was held in October, 1948, and was organized by Mary Louis Womer, the owner of the Little Gallery at 1328 E. 57th St. The area was an enclave not unlike the one at 57th and Stony Island — here clustered near Kenwood Avenue, which became a mecca for local artists. Womer commented it was “a time of oddballs and crazy people … and extraordinary, sometimes nutty, local events.”
Mrs. Lola B. Goff owned the building that housed the gallery, and these four red brick buildings collectively became known as the Goff House. The simply adorned townhouses became home to many of the “oddballs” and provided an atmosphere unlike any other area of the city. “Living there was like living in a small town, but what a small town it was,” recalled one resident. The fair, which has been held annually for more than 60 years, is a legacy to the small slice of a community where these residences stood.
Fifty-one artists displayed their work at the inaugural art fair. Womer’s space was not large enough to hold it all, so she took advantage of the local streets as artists hung their wares from tree-strung wires and along fences. In spite of the haphazard setup, the early fairs offered works by a number of exceptional artists. Swedish sculptor Claus Oldenberg’s earliest recorded sales were at the fair. He was studying at the Art Institute between 1946 and 1950, and exhibited at one fair during that period. Five items were sold to a shrewd (or lucky) investor for a total purchase price of a mere $25.
During the 1950s land clearance removed many of the time-worn buildings in each of these areas. The 57th Street Artists Colony managed to hang on until it was demolished in 1962, but enthusiasm for the arts endured in various creative ways. Four hundred works of art donated by Joseph R. Shapiro were available on loan through a University of Chicago-sponsored program entitled, “Art to Live With.” For a fee of a single dollar students were able to rent works by renowned artists including Miró, Goya, Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.
While students enjoyed the work of master artists, local residents were displeased with the loss of businesses that contributed to the artistic flavor of Hyde Park and took action. The wife of university president George Beadle described Herald Publisher Bruce Sagan as a “shrewd businessman [and] patron of the arts.” He is credited with an ingenious and complicated financial plan for the development of a not-for-profit to house the displaced artists and craftsmen. The buildings of Harper Court also included restaurants and shops, and were designed by Dubin, Dubin, Black & Moutoussamy to sit around a courtyard formed by the closing of Harper Avenue. Tenants were attracted to the now-demolished facility by low rent, not unlike the reason for the popularity of the Artists’ Colony 50 years earlier. While Harper Court is a memory, the future of the arts mentioned by President Zimmer now includes innovative projects produced by the not-for-profit Experimental Station and the Hyde Park Arts Incubator on Garfield Boulevard, among the other endeavors.
Looking back over a century of creative fervor, Boston journalist and satirist H. L. Mencken got Hyde Park’s affinity for the arts just right, commenting “Out in Chicago, the only genuinely civilized city in the New World, they take the fine arts seriously and get into such frets and excitements about them as are raised nowhere else save by baseball, murder, political treachery, foreign wars and romantic loves…”
Ah yes, and then there’s baseball. We will be taking a brief respite for the summer, and return with America’s pastime in the fall. In the meantime, please visit us on the web at hpherald.com/chicagos-historic-hyde-park/ and check the Lost Hyde Park blog for interim posts.