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Hyde Park Revisited

A vintage neighborhood full of history, rich culture and world-renowned architecture.


A vintage neighborhood full of history, rich culture and world-renowned architecture, the community of Hyde Park-Kenwood was conceived out of 'swampland in the 1800s. Chicago was on the rise at the time, well on its way to becoming an industrial giant. The city had begun to make inroads into architecture--a faster construction technique called 'balloon framing,' believed to have been developed in Chicago, debuted in 1833, revolutionizing building in the city. This new method gave way to homes being constructed in a week or less, permitting builders to keep up with the rapid influx of people. This was the beginning of Chicago's dynamic building industry and its reputation as an architectural mecca.

The city's economy and population were experiencing vigorous growth by 1850, but Chicago was still not the most desirous place to live. Overcrowding, noise, disease and the unpleasant smell of the stockyards made those who had options look for somewhere else to live.

In 1853, Paul Cornell, a lawyer and first cousin to Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University, bought 300 acres of marshy, sandy land eight miles south of Chicago along Lake Michigan. Naming it Hyde Park, after London's famous site, Cornell sought to make this area a resort for the affluent and elite. Chicago's business and civic leaders, along with state and local politicians looking to escape the ills of the city, would build their palatial estates in the suburb of Hyde Park. In order to make his swampy 300 acres a desirable location, Cornell knew there had to be several incentives in place to lure his intended residents. The first crucial element was establishing transportation, which he set into motion by deeding 60 acres of land to the new Illinois Central Railroad, granting them right of way for the promise of a passenger stop in Hyde Park. "[Paul Cornell] figured it would be a good bet that people would take advantage of the train and be willing to live eight miles away from downtown and be able to get back and

forth," says Jack Spicer, local preservationist and Hyde Park resident. "Therefore [people] could live in the country as opposed to the starting to be very congested--downtown."

Hyde Park became a frequent stop on the line to and from Chicago, which was the first and only rail commuter service west of Philadelphia. With this in place, Cornell used the train as a selling point to Chicago's business professionals. In 1856, he built a luxury resort hotel, the Hyde Park House, at 53rd and the lakeshore, which soon became the summer playground to distinguished guests such as Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, after the assassination of the president. With Chicagoans frequently visiting Hyde Park as a retreat, Cornell began the arduous undertaking of populating his hamlet with permanent residents. He traveled in the circles of the power brokers of Chicago, and being an adroit salesman, he persuaded a few of them to build their homes in Hyde Park.

Soon after Cornell founded the community, a dentist named Jonathan Kennicott became the first resident, moving into 48th and Dorchester in 1856. The Illinois Central created a passenger stop at 47th Street in 1859, calling it Kenwood after Kennicott's estate.

Kenwood, Hyde Park and other small villages were incorporated in 1861 to create Hyde Park Township. As the township flourished, prominent citizens continued to migrate to the area, especially Kenwood, which garnered a reputation as the ideal milieu for Chicago's industrial elite, such as William Rand of the Rand McNally Map Company, Martin Ryerson, the lumber merchant, Gustavus Swift, the meatpacker, and Julius Rosenwald, the CEO of Sears, Roebuck & Co. "Kenwood became the place of men and women who were industrialists," explains Timuel Black, professor emeritus of City Colleges of Chicago and retired professor from Columbia College, Roosevelt University and Harold Washington College. "They were the titans of the business world."

There was diversity in the style of homes in burgeoning Hyde Park-Kenwood. "Beginning in the 1860s, early wood-frame workman's cottages were built by anonymous carpenters who took advantage of the balloon frame construction methods in the decades before and after the Chicago Fire," says R. Stephen Sennott, assistant dean for academic affairs and adjunct associate professor at the College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology.

A popular wood design was Italianate, derived from the architecture of Italian villas, which was used from around 1860 to 1890. Queen Anne was another style widely used. Popular in the 1880s and '90s, its asymmetrical shape was characterized by expansive porches, press metal bays and turrets and prominent, varied rooflines. The Eastlake/Stick style, which referred to Charles Eastlake, promoted the use of wooden decoration and wooden stick work. Romanesque Revival was also an admired design during the same period. This style was derived from 11th and 12th century France and Spain and consisted of heavy, rough-cut stone walls, deeply recessed windows and round arches and squat columns. Gothic Revival, with its soaring bell towers, masonry construction and gargoyle-like figures, was incorporated into many religious buildings and universities, including the University of Chicago, through the 1930s.

Prairie School style was developed in the Chicago area and is generally associated with Frank Lloyd Wright. It is characterized by its long proportions, flat brick or stucco walls, windows with abstract ornament and gable roofs with wide, overhanging eaves. "Among the Chicago style and Prairie style architects, Solon S. Beman, Pond and Pond, Howard Van Doren Shaw, Riddle and Riddle, Frank Lloyd Wright and others designed houses for a diverse middle class, University of Chicago faculty and leaders in Chicago business and manufacturing," Sennott says.

The World Columbian Exposition in 1893 further shaped the community of Hyde Park-Kenwood. Once Chicago was designated the host city to the World's Fair, set to be located in Hyde Park, millions of dollars were invested into erecting lodging for fair attendees. "The Columbian Exposition stimulated a tremendous building program," Spicer says. "A lot of people built buildings that they leased to people who wanted to visit the fair and when the fair was over they turned them into apartment buildings. It was very speculative, but some beautiful architecture."

Published: October 01, 2005
Issue: November 2005