Prior to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, there weren’t many architects in the Windy City. The destruction, though devastating, presented an enormous opportunity through the rebuilding process and many architects came to Chicago to make their mark. Displaced residents, horrified by the fire and disillusioned with industrialization, looked to the suburbs for a different life, and the quiet village of Hyde Park experienced a surge of growth as a result. New homes sprang up with brightly painted facades and elaborate woodwork — a reaction to the grit and grime of the industrialized world — and even families who couldn’t afford an architect drew inspiration from pattern books and new construction homes popping up all around them.
Growing pains and political pressure eventually led Hyde Park to vote for its annexation into Chicago in 1889, but the character of the area did not entirely disappear. Two years later, however, the newly founded University of Chicago would break ground with funds from John D. Rockefeller, seeing the construction of the Gothic-style Cobb Hall that would begin the neighborhood’s transformation into a center of higher education. Around the same time, the city made plans for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park, an event that would set a precedent for urban planning and new architectural ideas in the city and worldwide.
Thanks in large part to these events, Hyde Park today is an architecturally enlightened neighborhood, rich with painstakingly detailed churches, world-famous monuments, and elegant homes that have survived through the community’s several eras. There are too many buildings of note in Hyde Park to visit in a day (let alone to fit into a blog article) but here are a few of the neighborhood’s most important buildings along with a few lesser known gems.
Old School Icons
The Museum of Science and Industry is just one of two buildings remaining from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which helped put classical architecture back in style. The structures built for the fair’s White City were temporary, utilizing plaster walls painted white for a fast, cheap throwback to the classical Greek and Roman style. The museum, used as the Palace of Fine Arts for the fair, was reinforced with a fireproof steel-and-brick structure to protect the priceless artwork it would house, but the building’s exterior would inevitably fall into disrepair. When the building was restored, the plasterwork was recreated with limestone, gracing Hyde Park and the city at large with a new crown jewel. This Neoclassical style is echoed in buildings throughout the city, including the facade of the DuSable Museum, which is located on Hyde Park’s west end.
The two decades following annexation were mostly prosperous for Hyde Park. Though the Columbian Exposition put Chicago’s South Side on the map, it lasted only six months, and those put out of work after the fair’s closing would face an economic depression at the end of the century. Gilded age money continued to pour into the university, however, and professors chose young architects with fresh ideas to build their homes. One such house was the Carpenter Residence designed by the Pond brothers. While Pond & Pond were known for pushing boundaries, this structure combined elements of classical and new that would have appealed to Frederick Carpenter, a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature. The arches over the windows and quoined corner detailing harken back to the old world, while the red brick and white windows suggest a modern touch.
Rockefeller Chapel also looms over the University of Chicago campus with 32,000 tons of ornate Gothic beauty, cut from stone and supported by steel beams. Famed architect and Gothic revivalist Bertram Goodhue modeled the building after the cathedrals and college chapels of the British Isles, decorating the outside walls with over one hundred sculptures portraying Biblical figures as well as U.S. presidents, philosophers, and University of Chicago students. The chapel also features the largest carillon ever built, an instrument comprised of 72 bronze bells. Recitals can be heard at midday and early evening throughout the week, treating students and passersby to a ghostly song from olden times or, occasionally, the Game of Thrones theme.
The most famous home in Hyde Park is likely the Frederick C. Robie House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Even if you haven’t visited this National Historic Landmark, you’ve likely seen its successors — in towns and suburbs throughout the Midwest, low, ranch-style homes proliferated in the wake of Wright’s “organic architecture.” While certainly built to contrast with the flat Midwestern landscape, the Robie House also borrows ideas from Japanese architecture, shown in its projecting roof eaves, its open, free flowing family area, and minimalist emphasis on horizontal lines. The massive cantilevered overhang on the structure’s west end was unlike anything attempted in the area. Breaking from the boxy, Victorian-style homes of the time, Wright pushed 20th-century architecture in a new direction with a gravity-defying concept that can be seen in some of Hyde Park’s newest structures.
A few decades after the Robie House was built, architect Bertrand Goldberg made his mark on the neighborhood with the Helstein House. The owner, Ralph Helstein, was a leader in the labor movement and a civil rights ally and wanted a forward-thinking, yet modest home that demonstrated what was possible with contemporary construction techniques. Goldberg looked to the Dom-Ino House model designed by Le Corbusier in 1915 as a row house that could be mass produced. This domicile resembling dominoes would consist of thin concrete slabs supported by reinforced concrete columns, with the inside left completely open to allow for modification. In the Holstein House, Goldberg recessed the interior to emphasize the exposed structure and employed large glass windows to contrast with the concrete. With traditional walls utterly absent, Goldberg showed what could be accomplished by doing away with unnecessary constraints. A staircase leading from the foyer to the top floor appeared to float through the home — quite an eye-catcher in 1950. Today, an unfortunate paint job robs the home of its former glory, but its influence lives on.
For every Classical and Gothic structure anchoring Hyde Park’s history, there is a visually stunning modernist creation that looks to the future. The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library turns a tradition of dim, musty libraries on its head. A dome of glass and steel houses a reading area filled with natural light, but the truly innovative feature of the library is the underground book storage system that extends 50 feet below the dome. Library users request books online, prompting an underground retrieval system to locate the item in a stack of 24,000 bins and hoist the bin containing the book to the surface via a crane.
The relatively new Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts also sports a Jetsons aesthetic, but with a complex, blocky design intended to inspire creativity. A row of studios, galleries, and theaters lit by rooftop windows hugs the ground next to a 170-foot tower filled with classrooms, rehearsal spaces, and performance labs. The tower is meant to honor the skyscrapers of Chicago, while the low surrounding buildings mimic the flatland of the Midwest at large. The southeast building features a green, saw-tooth roof, which is fitted with solar panels.
Coming soon to the university campus is the David M. Rubenstein Forum, a layered building of meeting spaces with three overhanging sections reminiscent of the Robie House. A cantilevered conference room at the top of a tower will offer a prime view of Lake Michigan and the university’s main quad. The architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro are spearheading the project and are also in the running to design the Obama Presidential Center. If the final construction looks anything like the preliminary design, Hyde Park will gain yet another modernist wonder to complement its many historic landmarks.