"Chicago's Historic Hyde Park"

Hyde Park is famous for being home to presidents, politicians, and religious leaders. It is also known for its highly integrated community. Through hundreds of photographs from 1850 to today, Susan O’Connor Davis, author of the new book Chicago’s Historic Hyde Park creates a visually fascinating history of the evolution of Hyde Park through the people who lived in the houses and the architects who constructed them. She joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.

We spoke with Davis to learn more about her book. Read an interview below, view a slideshow of historic Hyde Park homes, and read an excerpt from the book.

Launten Apartment Building, 1907.What was your inspiration for the book?

I think it began when my husband and I built a house in Kenwood. The urban legend was that the old house on our land was torn down in error. We never found a huge water tank or anything, but every spring when the soil would loosen, things would come up as I worked in the garden. We saw hinges, a brick, which was almost a way of saying, “don’t forget me.” Something was here before, and that always piqued my interest. I am not an architect, but I had an idea of the story and I wanted to tell it.

Who is your target audience?

Well, I hope it will have a good local appeal as well as a broader appeal. The book opens up with the day President Obama leaves his home in Hyde Park, and then he came back home three weeks later, and I wanted to know: what was it that made him want to come home? He had lived all over the map, but chose Hyde Park as his home. In a broader sense, you can’t write a book like this about Crawford, Texas. Obama is a very urban president, and Hyde Park is a special place. There are only a handful of neighborhoods like this which makes it unique.

I hope I have local readers, as well as people who are interested in politics. The community struggled with integration in the 1930s-1960s, and had stability through social class as opposed to racial categories which was unique. 

What research went into this project?

I started backwards. There was a book that had been done in 1978 by Jean Block called Hyde Park Houses: An Informal History, 1856-1910, which was a very early study of urban environments. It is a beloved book about Hyde Park. The first concept starts where the book ended in 1910 and continues till today. I started digging through lists of all the houses in that period of time and researched architects, their philosophies and their education, and weaved all the stories together.

The Muhammad/Farrakhan property featured a curving driveway and tiled fountain facing Woodlawn Avenue. It is guarded by Nation of Islam security and is often photographed by curiosity seekers.How did you choose the houses for each of the time periods?

The research is twice as thick as what we see in the book. I can’t editorialize because I do not have the expertise to say that this is something different from that. We gathered all the pictures of the houses and sat at my dining room table with an editor, and we held up each picture and determined if it was good or bad; a good story or bad story. So much was constructed around the turn of the century. We tried to cover things not in Jean Block’s book.

Where did you get the pictures?

I met with a photographer, Kevin Eatinger, who I sent on assignments around Hyde Park and Kenwood. The University of Chicago has a huge archive, and the Chicago History Museum and the Art Institute were also helpful. I found some photos in odd places like a collection in Melbourne, Australia. There was a picture of a house interior that had an obscure reference to Hyde Park, and made it in the book and weird online sites where you can buy the pictures.

What are the major styles that classify Hyde Park?

The styles are across the board. The thing that is so interesting is that you find things from earlier, like when box houses were all the rage in the 1860s, and then the marvelous gothic cottages. People had aspirations for their houses. They would go to pattern books and look at suggestions. This was the period with architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, and the rise of the American Style and Modernism during the Second World War.

What was unique about Hyde Park?

It’s unique that it is here at all. It is bordered by Midway Plaisance on the south, the lake on the east and Washington Park on the west. As the south changed demographically, many of the whites fled to suburban areas and the black community moved in. The community is unique not only because of the housing but because it persevered during a period of sweeping racial change and developed a plan to save the buildings built between the 1890s and 1930s, much in need of renovation during the middle of a depression. Then, people divided structures for rooming houses, but local people took the initiative to save and preserve the community.

The Algonquin Apartments stand where the original Chicago Beach hotel was constructed, located directly on the lakefront at the time.What influenced these styles?

People at the time had money. The houses were a reflection of status. Some places are really grandiose. People didn’t come to buy a house, they sought out the best that architecture had. There were influences from the east coast in Newport. If you look chronologically, you can see how architects developed houses along the way, from the square classical style which culminates to the Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright.

You mention in the book how the growth of Hyde Park is a “history of the development of the American city and those who participated in the development of our nation.” Why is that?

Back to the earliest days when the community was founded by Paul Cornell and when the nation was just growing, early developers plotted the land and had an idea of how the community should look. Then, after the fire, people migrated out of the city and came to the suburbs. It was the place where the Republican Party was born, and constructed the first bridge across the Mississippi River, and there were arguments over the future of the country. There was this richness in the community. This is where baseball started with the efforts of Albert Spalding, the Yellow Taxi had its foundations here, Julius Rosenwald of Sears lived in Kenwood, and the list goes on of people who were affiliated with the university and who lived in Hyde Park. There was a depth in the people who lived there and represented what was happening as the nation developed.

How has the demographic of Hyde Park changed? How has it stayed the same?

In the beginning, the demographic was white, church-going, Protestant Republicans, and now it is completely flipped. Hyde Park is now Democratic-leaning since the Great Depression, and it is obviously an integrated community, now 50-50 white and black, according to the latest census, although that varies by tract.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Read an excerpt from Chicago's Historic Hyde Park:

Kenwood
Sheehan Residence, “The Bailey,” c. 1855. Demolished.
Cottage Grove Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets. Builder unknown.

The controversial, longstanding shanties occupied by the Sheehan family at the western edge of patrician Kenwood, as they appeared in 1888.But you must see Kenwood as I saw it when we came here in 1861. As we approached, we passed Dr. Eagen’s [Egan’s] Lodge on the corner of Cottage Grove and Forty-seventh, where Mr. Liston and his five children managed to live in the only one-roomed thatched cottage anywhere near Chicago. —Annie McClure Hitchcock, “Reminiscences of Kenwood in 1859”

When Peggy Sheehan died in 1897, few of her aristocratic neighbors mourned her passing. Sheehan had for years occupied a slice of their prestigious neighborhood, living in a small lean-to, a thatched shanty at the edge of the community. As Kenwood transformed into the “Lake Forest of the South Side,” this Irish immigrant fought to keep a simple home for her family. Like many other pre-development families, they were squatters on the land. Unlike other squatters, the Sheehans remained.

Sheehan and her husband Thomas came to Chicago at the recommendation of a relative, James Liston, who had arrived fifteen years earlier. A lease of a nine-by-twelve lean-to on land in an area then known as the “Bailey” awaited their arrival. The area was named for Elisha Bailey, who in the summer of 1858 purchased property between 48th and 50th Streets along Cottage Grove Avenue. A former squatter named Parker claimed to have built the lean-to, and although Liston said he had purchased rights to the house, there were other claimants to the homestead.

Lively legal battles followed, but the Sheehans kept the place as their family grew. For nearly fifty years, the shanty, with its unwelcome tenants, proved unmovable by the due process of law.

After Thomas’ death in 1889 his wife continued the fight, although confronted with numerous attempts to remove her. She held her own until 1895, when she capitulated and for the two years prior to her death paid an annual rental of $40. Peggy Sheehan was known as the oldest surviving pioneer of Egandale “squatting” at the southwest corner of 48th Street, until death finally dislodged her. Read more here.

Reprinted with permission from Chicago’s Historic Hyde Park by Susan O’Connor Davis, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2013 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.