Chicago’s Hyde Park has always been something of an urban oasis. For all its cosmopolitanism today, in its early history it was a suburb that only slowly became a city neighborhood. It formally joined Chicago in 1889 along with more than a hundred other square miles of unevenly developed land around the outskirts of the industrial city.
In 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition helped spur more intensive development in Hyde Park, turning sections of it into a denser, more urbane center. The growth of the University of Chicago, founded a year before the Exposition, contributed to this urbanization as well, bringing a constant influx of new residents and visitors to the neighborhood.
The “Park” in Hyde Park is a term of distinct significance in Chicago. The city’s motto—“Urbs in Horto,” city in a garden—stakes a claim for a special city-nature relationship. Hyde Park was part of a surrounding ring of outlying suburbs which included “park” in their names, often linked to an actual bit of green: think of Lincoln Park, Oak Park, and Evergreen Park, for instance.
As a suburb-turned-urban district, Hyde Park is characterized by its relative spaciousness: many large houses, often mansions, set back from the street by deep lawns dotted with lots of trees and shrubs. It is one of the best neighborhoods from which to get a sense of the whole history of Chicago’s residential architectural development, from the wood-frame homes of the mid-nineteenth century, to the mansions of the Gilded Age, the apartment buildings of the early twentieth century, and the varied housing schemes of the last sixty years.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed most of the city’s wood-frame housing stock. But in outlying areas untouched by the fire, these houses remained and continued to be built. Although subsequent development has removed many of these vulnerable wooden structures, Hyde Park still contains a few remnants, including 5630 South Kimbark, detailed in the popular mid-nineteenth-century Italianate style with round, hooded windows and large, scroll-bracketed gables.
Even more modest “workingmen’s cottages,” or “Chicago cottages,” were built by the dozens in the post-Civil War years through the end of the century. The one at 5417 Blackstone Avenue preserves a good sense of what large swathes of the district, especially in the blocks closest to the rail lines near the lake, would have looked like: imagine street after street of similar buildings, interspersed with houses like the one on Kimbark.
By the 1880s and 1890s, the era of architectural eclecticism was in full swing across the nation. Among the most popular types were the picturesque Queen Anne and the stately Romanesque. Queen Anne was an import from England: varied materials from wood shingles to slate, stucco, and brick were combined in appealing patterns and silhouettes to form variegated gables, porches, and dormers. Along with small panes of glass, the Queen Anne attempted to create a hand-crafted, preindustrial aesthetic. Many good examples can be found in the area, including 4800 Kimbark by the architect G. A. Garnsey, built in 1888; the attached houses at 5832-34 Harper Avenue by Solon Beman; and the house at 5752 Harper by W. W. Boyington, designer of the beloved Water Tower and Pumping Station on Michigan Avenue.
In the sturdy Romanesque, inspired largely by the example of Boston architect H. H. Richardson, heavy stonework, solid expanses of wall, and beautifully detailed round-arched doorways and windows created a “boulevard house” type found throughout the city. Hyde Park has its own appealing specimens, including the house at 4845 Drexel Avenue by the firm of Treat & Foltz, built in 1887.
Hyde Park also features a house type common in other parts of Chicago: the attached stone-fronted rowhouse in an eclectic mode that borrows from Queen Anne, Romanesque, Gothic, and other traditional styles. The fine group at 4938-42 Ellis Avenue, with its peaked gables, dormers, oriole windows and covered porches, is quintessentially Chicagoan.
Most of the large mansions that survive date from the late 1890s and after. These houses were usually designed in variations of classical and Georgian styles, often with motifs and accents borrowed from Queen Anne, Tudor, and the French Beaux-Arts. Some of the most distinctive of these large turn-of-the-century piles are the Finch House at 5235 University Avenue by James Gamble Rogers, best known for his quadrangles at Yale University; the William Harper House at 5855 University by Henry Ives Cobb, a prolific local architect; and the slightly smaller but very elegant trio of Woodlawn Avenue houses by Howard Van Doren Shaw: the Goodspeed, Mason, and Mrs. William Harper Houses at 5706, 5715, and 5728, respectively.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House at 5757 Woodlawn Avenue has long been the connoisseur’s favorite. It’s the most curious among the varied houses in the district, standing defiantly aloof from its surroundings. As the epitome of Wright’s distinctive Prairie Style, it was designed with strong horizontal lines, small Roman bricks, wide overhangs, geometric patterns, and closed approach. When built in 1910, nature’s prairie had long been banished from the area. Wright’s nostalgic understanding of the family unit led him to turn Robie House inwards to create a private utopia. “Where’s the front door?” is a common question from visitors.
Wright designed three other houses in the neighborhood: 4852 and 4858 Kenwood Avenue, both from 1892, and 5132 Woodlawn, from 1897. The 1892 houses—among the set of so-called “bootleg” houses, which Wright designed as moonlighting projects while he worked for Louis Sullivan—are most in keeping with the architectural character of the neighborhood. They demonstrate that Wright, in his early years, could be as good an eclectic architect as any.
Built at the same time as Robie House, but much more typical of its period, is 5046 South Greenwood Avenue. Architecturally modest, this house wouldn’t have made it on earlier itineraries of local architectural landmarks. It does today because it is the Chicago home of President Barack Obama and family. Another presidential Hyde Park, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Georgian mansion on the Hudson River in New York, has greater architectural pretensions, but the Obama house has the advantage of a rich urban context.
As Jean F. Block wrote in her still useful book, Hyde Park Houses (1978), the domestic architecture of the neighborhood is an excellent guide to a much larger story. As she put it, those houses “indicate how and why the community grew. To walk the streets is to see displayed the story of midwestern people and their homes.”