Part Thirty-One: The Rebellious Conservative

Scattered among the grassy weeds of a mound left during urban renewal are limestone remnants of a structure that once graced Lake Park Avenue.  Hardly noticed by the passengers of the busy CTA bus stop or adjacent Metra line, these have been partially buried in the shifting soil for nearly sixty years.

A series presented by the Hyde Park Herald and Susan O’Connor Davis, author of “Chicago’s Historic Hyde Park,’ published by University of Chicago Press.

Photos by Kevin Eatinger

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 but relate to the residences and structures that currently or in the past have defined the urban fabric.  Additional images for this article, as well as all of the earlier installments, are available on the Hyde Park Herald website; click on the Lost Hyde Park icon.

By Susan O’Connor Davis

In its earliest days, the intersection of 47th Street and Lake Park Avenue bore no likeness to the heavily travelled area it is today. Rather it was the social center of a quiet, well-to-do residential community.

After the Chicago Fire, when the city’s business leaders flocked to the community to live, this was the gateway to Kenwood. The esteemed Norman Judd, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, once owned the property on the southwest corner. After his death, his Italianate house was purchased to accommodate the Kenwood Club. Distinguished by its towering cupola, the house was renovated and enlarged to accommodate the growing membership of this private neighborhood club. For many years, the club was a second home for nearby residents, whose homes lined 47th Street and Lake Avenue.

When a new facility for the Kenwood Club was erected in 1895, changes were apparent in the streetscape; avenues had been widened, the street car was installed on 47th Street and commercial enterprises began to appear. Nearby owners feared a decrease in their property values with these “improvements.” They waged a lively battle over a small fruit stand near the 47th Street train station, successfully negotiated with the landowner and banana stand was removed.

Not long after, a block of stores that opened at 47th and Lake Avenue stoked indignation for only a brief time. The paving of the streets, the growing number of commercial enterprises and increased traffic gradually shifted the character of this area from residential to transit and commercial usage. As the Kenwood community slowly accepted progress and convenience, the addresses on Lake and 47th Streets became far less exclusive.

Over the ensuing years the area changed dramatically; 50 years later both streets would have been unrecognizable to the area’s earliest residents.  Gas stations and apartment buildings crowded out single-family homes.  Even the venerable club was sold and converted to commercial usage. But a few residences did remain along the avenue, at least until the massive Urban Renewal Plan was implemented in the 1950s.  Lake Avenue was relocated to the east and bordering the Illinois Central Railroad embankment, and all adjacent properties were to be cleared.

Today a Chicago Transit Authority bus turnaround marks the southeast corner of the intersection, across from the former site of the Kenwood Club.  A grass covered mound of rubble that accumulated during Land Clearance is now part of the landscape.  As the years have passed bits of building materials have risen to the surface of this mound, serving to remind us things were not always as they appear today.

A most prolific architect, Howard van Doren Shaw designed everything from small structures to sprawling country houses. It was Shaw’s early work in the Hyde Park area that established his prominence as an architect, beginning with his own home that is pictured above.  The Shaw-Atkinson Residences were located at 4843-4847 Lake Park Avenue and constructed in 1894. The structures graced the avenue until they were demolished 1961.

About a block south of the CTA turnaround, the home of one of the leading architects of an earlier era stood until urban renewal. A prolific architect, Howard van Doren Shaw designed well over 200 buildings and projects during his 32-year career. But it was Shaw’s early work in the Hyde Park area that established his prominence and led to a body of work that included small city residences and adaptations of English country houses, as well as churches, collegiate structures, and municipal spaces.

Much can, and has been, written about Howard van Doren Shaw.  However it was the discovery of the partially buried limestone fragment and its similarity to the keystone above the recessed front entry of 4847 Lake that was the inspiration for this particular story.

Shaw was born in Chicago in 1869 to a prominent couple that lived at 2124 South Calumet – in one of the city’s most fashionable districts of the time. Educated at the Harvard School for Boys, he was accepted at Yale University during his junior year. In 1890 Shaw entered the two-year program at MIT, during a time when students studied classical Greek and Roman architecture.   Returning to Chicago, Shaw apprenticed as a draftsman for Jenney & Mundie, a firm that was known as a training ground for up-and-coming architects.

In 1894, Shaw established his own practice. In the coming decades he would design more than 20 residences in the Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhoods, and a number of institutional spaces including the foundation and basin for Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time on the Midway Plaisance. Although a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright and Dwight Perkins, Shaw designed using traditional, historical styles. He was successful in Hyde Park and Kenwood, attracting a wide clientele drawn from society and business. Shaw responded in kind; he imbued their houses with symbols of bounty—fruits, flowers, and grape vines.

Howard van Doren Shaw’s first project in Kenwood was adjoining houses on Lake Park

Avenue.  They were designed at the request of wholesale merchant Moses Dwight “Shoe King” Wells.  Wells was quite the successful entrepreneur.  His footwear was advertised with the slogan “If shod with Wells shoes, you are well shod,” and his shoes were manufactured at four Chicagoland locations.

The shoe king first hired Shaw to design a country house for his family, and the architect came away with more than a job.  He married Wells’ daughter Francis in 1893.  The following year Wells commissioned Shaw to design the Lake Avenue houses for Francis and her sister Martha (Mrs. Charles Atkinson).

Situated on site that fronted 100 feet on then fashionable Lake Avenue, the land stretched eastward over 200 feet to the Illinois Central right of way.  The land was located just north of Benton R. Wells’ house.  That residence later became the George F. Harding Museum, the very last structure on Lake demolished during urban renewal.

Known as Dorencote, 4843 Lake was the Shaws’ home for the 15 years. The Romanesque Revival design featured a brick and limestone façade with slate roofs and copper sheathing on the bays and dormers. Much of the interior detail was imported from England; every room with a fireplace was of a different design, woodwork was of oak, mahogany, and cherry, and arched windows featured leaded glass.

Frances recalled the early years of her husband’s career.   “Howard Shaw never had a partner. He wished to do every detail himself,” she wrote.  “That trait was his undoing physically. He was impatient with anyone who did not do as well as himself. And he did everything well. Carpentry, brick-laying, tree planting, gardening, shingling, stone-laying, sign painting, stage setting, lighting effects and scenery. At all these occupations he spent busy Saturdays and Sundays, as long as he could keep upon his feet. I will never forget his skills with a brick-layer’s trowel, hitting off the corners of the bricks, for a summer house, with half-timber work sides, in our back yard at 4843. It is still there.”

In 1962 the George Harding Museum (built for Brenton Wells at 4853 Lake) was condemned by the city in order to complete the widening of Lake Park Avenue as part of the massive urban renewal project. Although legal battles ensued, the structures were demolished in 1965.  The Shaw-Atkinson residences stood just north of the house pictured above.

And in 1954 it was still there.  A local developer purchased the attached houses and redeveloped the property under a new zoning that permitted multi-family dwellings.  Renamed Van Doren Village, Ralph Eisendrath remodeled the houses into smaller apartments, and received a Good Neighbor Award for the “well-planned conversion,” according to the Herald.

As the urban renewal plan moved forward in the 1950s and early ‘60s and land was cleared, local support began to gather for saving the houses at 4843, 4847 and 4853 Lake Park from demolition.  Letters to the Editor of the Hyde Park Herald in 1958 offered plans for keeping Lake Park in its location and simply widening the street, thus saving “good and sound buildings on the east side…”

To no avail however. The well-built structures of Van Doren Village were demolished in 1961. The last house standing on old Lake Avenue was the museum of George Harding.  His estate fought the demolition successfully for a time, yet the red brick house and museum fell to the wrecker’s ball four years later.

Chicago architect and historian Thomas Tallmadge wrote of Shaw in Architectural Record in July 1926.   “Perhaps one might say of him, he was the most rebellious of the conservatives and the most conservative of the rebels.” To understand what Tallmadge meant, it helps to understand that Shaw’s houses were eminently modern for the time, but unlike his contemporaries Frank Lloyd Wright and George Maher, he preferred to use the forms of traditional architecture.

On May 5, 1926, Howard Shaw was awarded the prestigious gold medal from the American Institute of Architects.  Shaw was only the fifth architect to receive the medal, which is awarded “in recognition of a significant body of work of lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.”

Howard van Doren Shaw did not live to see the full evolution of Lake Avenue.  He died the day after receiving the AIA award, one day shy of 57 years of age.

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