Part Thirty: Big Wheels

This drawing is of the cooperative at 1321 East 56th Street is by architect Henry K. Holsman Conceived during the building boom of the twenties, the 14-story building has since been converted to condominiums.

The series has completed a look at the development of the major intersections along Lake Park Avenue and turned to stories of interest within the Hyde Park and Kenwood communities.  The articles are all of varying topics that relate to the residences that currently, or in the past, have defined the urban fabric.

By Susan O’Connor Davis

In spite of everything that happened on Wall Street in the fall of 1929, the American economy did not immediately collapse. Investment was certainly down, when a rolling series of bank panics began late in 1930. Hundreds of banks closed across the country, including the newly housed Hyde Park Bank, as nervous customers lined up and demanded their money. Homelessness, hunger, misery, and fear gripped the nation as prosperity disappeared.

The building industry came to a standstill as the apartment boom of the 1920s turned into an epidemic of receiverships. By 1932, Chicago had suffered the worst drop in property values of any major American city.

Architectural firms survived without much work in those Depression era days and were forced to extend their creativity to stay afloat.  When an aspiring young architect named Edo Belli was hired by a small family firm as a draftsman, he earned the sum of five bucks a week. But proprietor Henry K. Holsman amended that offer to include all he could eat for lunch.

Reportedly Belli consumed quite a lot.

Nearing 70 at the time, Henry Holsman had worked as an architect for decades and remained very much interested in housing during these difficult times. “He always fooled around in designing apartments and daydream that things might break and come in,” recalled Belli.

Holsman’s firm very much survived those years, for he was indeed one creative fellow. When living in Iowa decades earlier, a neighbor wanted to increase the size of his house. Holsman came up with the idea of raising the house on supports and building beneath with the modern amenities of the time.

Armed with a reputation as a clever designer and a degree from Grinnell College, he came to Chicago in 1892.  Building on his freelance experience in home renovation, Holsman began work as a building superintendent for three high-rises in the Loop before forming the architectural partnership of Brainerd & Holsman in 1893.

Walking the streets of Hyde Park, one can see the wide spectrum of Henry Holsman’s work.  His interest in housing ranged from the classically detailed residence of George Eckles at 5537 Woodlawn Ave. (later the home of Enrico Fermi), to sturdy apartment buildings favored by junior faculty at the university, to the handsome limestone Disciples Divinity House on 57th Street.

When Holsman designed the Eckels’ home in 1899, many residences were under construction near the university. Although that indicated other commissions might become available, Holsman the daydreamer soon left the practice of architecture for an interesting diversion in the earliest days of the automobile industry.

The country’s first road race occurred right here in Hyde Park just four years earlier and the event whetted Americans taste for the “moto cycle.”  Bicycle mechanics Frank and Charles Duryea designed the first successful American made gasoline automobile and won that race in 1895.  Sensing opportunity, some thirty manufacturers were soon producing 2,500 motorized vehicles annually.  Nearly 500 companies entered the business during the next decade, and the architect Henry Holsman owned one of them.

As the notion of the automobile became increasingly commonplace, the 34-year old Holsman noted a problem with many of the designs.  Roads outside the city proper were unpaved, quite often muddy and difficult to traverse.  The first car he purchased often stalled in inclement weather, so he bought another which wasn’t any better.  Then, ever the confident dreamer, Holsman was determined that he could design a much more dependable vehicle than anything on the road at the time.

Holsman finished up the design of a house for Carl and Clarinda Buck at 5733 University and then was off on a new adventure.  Founded in partnership with his brother J. Arthur, the Holsman Automobile Company of Chicago manufactured a carriage style automobile equipped with high, solid rubber wheels.  The design of the Holsman High-Wheeler allowed their “moto buggy” to travel reliably over rough roads.  The brothers exhibited their first car at the Chicago Auto Show in January 1903.

Holsman’s intent was to offer a usable, sturdy car that was inexpensive to buy and easy to maintain so that all people, especially those of the working class, could afford one. Between 1904 and 1910, the company manufactured the high-wheeler at their factory at 63rd and Washington (Blackstone) Street.  In 1908, one could buy a Holsman Model 4 Runabout for $550 and leave the horse behind.

You won’t be surprised to hear that sales were slow during Chicago’s long, cold winters but increased during the rest of the year.  Holsman scheduled production of his cars between December and early Spring, which resulted in most of their cash being tied up as inventory. As cars were delivered and paid for, cash flow would then increase.


In 1932 Henry Holsman proposed this layout, which encompassed an entire city block, for an urban renewal site in Chicago. The plan is from a 1932 publication of the Architects Club of Chicago, entitled Rehabilitating Blighted Areas: Studies of Blighted Areas.

After highly successful sales years in 1906 and 1907, the company spent considerably in anticipation of continuing high sales.  But in 1908 Ford’s Model T, with smaller wheels for city driving, became popular.  Orders slacked and Holsman’s company found itself uncomfortably short of cash.

In the fall of 1909, the company borrowed additional sums to be used during the winter construction period. As was typical, by spring they had a sizable inventory of cars and little cash. Repayment of the money was due well before the height of the selling season. The bottom fell out when they built 659 cars but received only 428 orders.

On February 24 of that year a Western Union Telegram was delivered to Holsman from his bankers advising “letting [the] factory go and starting new on small scale. Can’t raise money for tomorrow.”

He did in fact let the factory go and turned his patents over to the Independent Harvester Company.  After consulting for a time, Holsman returned to architecture and went on to incorporate some of what he aspired to in his automobile business into housing.

Holman had designed a car that was inexpensive to buy so that more people could afford one.  Using the same theme, Holsman the architect developed a novel concept for home ownership.

In his thinking, a property could be mutually owned by people of moderate incomes in a corporation or trust, and then leased back to them at a low monthly cost – a concept now commonly known as a cooperative.  Holsman formalized his theory and in 1922 founded the Community Development Trust.  He maximized efficiencies in the construction of his projects and offered modest shares for purchase with a low-cost lease on an apartment.

By the mid-1920s Holsman had built six such complexes in Hyde Park.  In addition to the high rise at 1321 56th St., the 4-story 56th and University Cooperative is another example of his affordable, well-constructed and aesthetically pleasing work.

The Holsmans were neighborhood residents in the 1920s, living at 5617 Madison Ave. (now Dorchester), which was completed in 1927.  Holsman was married to the energetic and ambitious Elizabeth Tuttle, an Art Institute graduate with her own career as a painter and sculptor. One of their sons, Henry T. Holsman, shared his father’s interest in architecture and in 1931 founded the Parker-Holsman Company to manage and sell properties on the South Side. Their three sons eventually joined the family business; Parker-Holsman continues to operate in Hyde Park today.

Although remembered as a somewhat distant fellow who always wore a suit and tie, Holsman remained less staid in his approach to architecture.  When the economic conditions of the nation worsened with the Great Depression, Holsman was hired to design a model farm house for the forward-focused  1934 Century of Progress.  Locally, one of Holsman’s last projects was a small Cotswold style cottage for Harley and Florence MacNair. The scale of their Woodlawn Avenue house and use of common materials reflects the changing nature of fortune.

Holsman then turned his attention to living conditions within the broader city and experimented with urban renewal.  In the late 1930s Holsman consulted with the newly established Chicago Housing Authority on various public housing projects.

Edo Belli described the Holsman firm as “innovators in almost every field you can imagine.”  By the Second World War they were known as leading housing experts and did a large-scale development in the Auburn Park neighborhood for 908 houses.  Henry continued his interest in the firm well into his eighties, although his son John became the lead designer.

Henry Holsman continued to daydream until his death in 1963, shortly before his 97th birthday.  His granddaughter recalled that he never really told stories about the automobile business and was unshaken in his belief that affordable homes and viable communities were the greatest aspect of the architectural profession.