Monday, February 27, 2012

The magnificent South Side

Martin Ryerson Home on Drexel Boulevard, Kenwood
Outside of the Loop, Chicago for its size and diversity is somewhat predictable. When you think about this city, a few architectural paradigms come to mind, its neighborhoods are filled with designs that were replicated by the tens of thousands. Essentially a handful of architectural styles give Chicago its distinctive look from one corner to the other. A person could be dropped at random from the air into pretty much any neighborhood and know he's in Chicago just by the types of buildings all around him.

There's the typical Chicago two or three flat.  Occasionally they are doubled up, two of them placed side by side separated by a common hallway. Built out of brick or stone, these apartment buildings with their shotgun plans, are the backbone of residential Chicago. Their post-WWII counterparts adorn the neighborhoods on the city's extremities. On a larger scale we have the multi unit apartment building, many of whom have a central courtyard, built by the thousands during the first part of the twentieth century. As for single family dwellings, the quintessential gable roofed, frame sided Chicago cottage was built to provide an affordable home for middle and working class Chicagoans in the nineteenth century. That design was replaced in the next century by the one story brick bungalow as the preeminent style of basic home design. So common are they that the term "bungalow belt" is synonymous with middle class Chicago. Houses for the more affluent may have been slightly more varied, but still followed established archetypes, Italianate, Queen Anne and Romanesque inspired styles in the nineteenth century and derivatives of the Prairie Style in the twentieth were the most common. The variety of styles in commercial buildings in most of Chicago, is also fairly limited.

I have a recurring dream where I discover a neighborhood in Chicago that I've never seen before, in fact never even knew existed. The undefined neighborhood is remarkably similar from dream to dream; it's a big commercial district of faded glory. In that sense it's not entirely different from so many of Chicago's mini downtowns that have all fallen upon hard times, Uptown, on the North Side, Garfield Park on the West Side, or Roseland on the South Side to name a few. Yet my dream city doesn't look like Chicago at all, the buildings don't resemble typical Chicago buildings, they're much grander in scale, and all the storefronts are occupied. Despite having seen better days, there is frenetic activity on the streets both day and night and yes, all the neon signs still work.

Granted I haven't visited every inch of the real Chicago, but I know it pretty well. So when I wake up and slowly come to terms that I've just returned from a city that exists only in my imagination, I'm a little disappointed.

Yet as well as I know Chicago, there are still undiscovered treasures, places that don't exactly fit the mold. Encountering them is like a dream come true to me. This happened the other day as I was driving home from a photographic shoot on the South Side. I chose a meandering route that took me through  some of the residential neighborhoods of Kenwood, Oakland, and Douglas. Generally speaking, I know these neighborhoods well, but as I discovered, not nearly well enough.

Former home of Gustavus Swift
All three communities were at one time suburbs of Chicago, and their architecture reflects that fact. The community of Kenwood, just north of Hyde Park, features some of the grandest homes in the city, in the 19th Century it was refered to in some circles as the "Lake Forest of the South Side." A century ago its residents included the likes of meatpacker Gutavus Swift and Sears chairman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. The homes of the two giants of industry and commerce sit catty corner from one another at 49th and Ellis. Swift's back door neighbor was lumber magnate Martin Ryerson. More recently Kenwood has been the home of Muhammad Ali, Elijah Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan, former U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi, and the Obama Family.

Among the architectural highlights of South Kenwood are two adjacent homes by a young Frank Lloyd Wright, "bootleg" homes that he designed under the radar, while he was still under the employ of Adler and Sullivan.

Early FLW; George W. Blossom House, left, and  Warren McArthur House

Blossom House coach house and garage
The style of the two houses built in the same year, 1892, as you can see could not be more different. The homes show the young architect cutting his teeth by experimenting with traditional styles and forms, the restrained, elegant Palladian of the Blossom House, contrasts sharply with the rustic barn-like Gambrel roof of the McArthur House. It's almost as if the audacious Wright purposely created them to be stylistically divergent just to show off his versatility. Go around to the back of the Blossom House and you'll see a much more familiar Wright building, a full-fledged Prairie Style design, the coach house/garage which was built 15 years later in 1907 when Wright was at the height of his powers, the same time as the construction of Robie House, about a mile away.

In 1889, Hyde Park Township, which included Kenwood and Oakland to the north, became absorbed into the City of Chicago. The World's Columbian Exposition was held in 1893. With that great world's fair came the construction of the Elevated which connected the area to the Loop, and with that came a boom in population and new construction.

Along with Gutavus Swift, many others associated with the Union Stock Yards lived in Kenwood and its adjacent communities. In fact, much of the prosperity of the area was a direct result of the meat packing industry. As the yards grew, so did their effect on the community. Any Chicagoan old enough to remember the Stock Yards can testify to the foul smell that was a permanent feature of its environs. Given the tendency for a prevailing  wind blowing from the west, Kenwood only a few miles east, was more often than not, directly down wind from the yards. Eventually the "smell of money" became less alluring and with it, the attractiveness of the neighborhoods. While the area of the great Kenwood mansions between 51st and 47th Streets has remained fairly stable, the neighborhoods to the north have been in a constant state of change essentially for the past 120 years.

Many of Kenwood's north/south streets dead end at 47th Street which is the dividing line between North and South Kenwood. Comparing that border to the Berlin Wall may be a bit of a reach but the difference between Kenwood north and south of 47th Street is dramatic. At that point, the grand mansions give way to duplexes and row houses as you can see from the photograph below.  

As I mentioned, most of the area has been in flux for quite a while, but no period of change was more dramatic than the decade after World War II. Refugees from the war moved in to North Kenwood by the score. Single family homes were sub-divided into apartments. During the fifties, the neighborhood's population shifted again, from 85 percent white to 85 percent black. With the help of the notorious Chicago practice of red-lining, funds for the rehabilitation of property in the area dried up and many of the buildings fell into disrepair and were destroyed. Lake Park Avenue was one of the most exclusive streets in the neighborhood. Louis Sullivan built his home (long gone) on that street, yet today you have to use your imagination, using the small handful of extant buildings to imagine what the street looked like. Large public housing projects (also now gone), virtually identical to those of the notorious Robert Taylor Homes replaced the elegant town houses. The same fate did not befall Berkeley Street one block to the west which boasts an amazing collection of mid to late nineteenth century duplexes, row houses and single family homes.

According to the AIA Guide to Chicago, the "fashionableness" of Kenwood and Oakland went into decline as they became absorbed into the City of Chicago in 1889. These days you wouldn't guess that the block of Berkeley between 44th and 45th Streets, developed in the 1890s with its splendid multicolored stone facades, was an indication of the downturn of the neighborhood. But at the time, the locals considered it to be an affront to the community. Responding to the influx of people into the neighborhood, the developer of the block sought and gained the right to widen the alley between Lake Park and Ellis, thereby creating the street that would bear his name. If you're at all familiar with dramas set around the turn of the last century such as Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, or the current BBC television series Downton Abbey, you can understand the resistance to such change. According to Glen Holt and Dominick Pacyga in their book: Chicago: A Historical Guide to the Neighborhoods: the Loop and the South Side, this is how a long time Kenwood resident, sounding like the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey, described the street:

...row on row of queer little houses with the windows cut into corners of the house and weird looking facades in the front. He (Berkeley) knew only one plan for a house, and they were all turned out of the same mold like a pan of biscuits; one could find dozens of houses that he built scatered throughout the community.

With the exception of a vacant lot here and there, reminding one of missing teeth, the block is in very good condition, especially given the economic troubles of the community. By today's standards it's a little difficult to understand what all the fuss was about. Putting oneself in the position of a Kenwoodite of the 1890s on the other hand, this block was the bellwether of the drastic changes to come, the  shift from the tranquility of massive houses and expansive yards of suburbia, to the density of the city. To what our eyes appears to be an example of elegant city living, 100 years ago was practically an example of urban blight. Our old time Kenwood observer was right, stone fronted row houses and duplexes much like these were and continue to be a familiar sight all over this part of town.

A couple of blocks to the north in the neighborhood of Oakland, there is a development of homes designed by Cicero Hine in the 1880s, known as the Berkeley Cottages. Twenty six of these cottages remain on Berkeley and Lake Park Avenue. Hine's cottages built in an eccentric, Queen Anne style, are unlike anything else found in this city, with the exception of a couple of other of Hine's developments in Chicago that no longer exist. Our unfortunate plane jumper might have a rough time identifying his whereabouts if he were to land on this lovely block.

Farther north is the community of Douglas, named after Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois senator who unsuccessfully opposed Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. Douglas was also a land speculator who bought up 70 acres of lakefront property, subdivided it and created among other things, two neighborhoods that surrounded parks. One of those neighborhoods still exists, the elegant "gated" community of Groveland Park, the entrance to which is pictured on the left. 
Douglas's impressive tomb is a fixture of the South Side lakefront at 35th Street on the site of his home. His larger than life bronze likeness stands atop a ninety-six foot column. The monument rivals the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. Across 35th Street from the tomb stands a bona fide relic of the Civil War, the Soldier's Home, now the Cardinal Meyer (pastoral care) Center. It was designed by one of this city's most prominent early architects, W.W. Boyington of Water Tower fame. Nearby was the site of the notorious Camp Douglas which served in part as a prison for Confederate soldiers during the War. Up to 23 percent of its prisoners died while in captivity at the camp.

Douglas, Oakland and Kenwood, all comprise parts of the neighborhood known as Bronzeville, the heart and soul of African American Chicago. The great migration of blacks to Chicago began around the time of the First World War. For many reasons including the virulent racism of the inhabitants of this city, African American people were forced to settle in the already transitioning neighborhoods of the South Side. In its heyday in the 1940s, Bronzeville was a city within a city, rivaled only by Harlem as the great center of black culture in America. Times and transition have taken their toll in much of the area, the once magnificent turn of the 20th Century housing stock as been depleted and some areas appear as devastated as portions of a bombed out city. Yet there is a great deal of life and revitalization going on, entire neighborhoods are springing up in areas where there once was little or no hope.

The following pictures document part of the death and rebirth of parts of what is in my opinion one of the most fascinating parts of Chicago:

Ignored and neglected for decades, the South Side communities of Douglas, Oakland and North Kenwood are coming back. The era of building dumping grounds for the poor in the form of massive housing projects has passed, and mixed income housing is popping up all over the city. I believe this is a good thing. Developers are starting to notice the handful of older buildings and as you can see above, they are taking cues from the past. 

The fact is these neighborhoods are some of most significant in the city in terms of their architecture and history. They contain some of the finest residenses in Chicago, connected by streets, parks and boulevards designed by the estimable team of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Not to mention that these communities are conveniently located and readily accessible to public transportation, it seems a no-brainer that the near South Side will one day return to its former glory.

Now my dream is to be around to see it happen.

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