People who live in Hyde Park and Kenwood have never been afraid to speak their minds or, when they build, to raise eyebrows. As a result, their neighborhoods are studded with remarkable buildings, and even the landscape has a distinguished pedigree: the guiding spirit of Frederick Law Olmsted hangs over the area’s two great parks, Washington and Jackson.
Some of the buildings are iconic—for instance, Frank Lloyd Wright’s ground-hugging Robie House (1910), which stands nearly in the shadow of another icon, Bertram Goodhue’s soaring Rockefeller Chapel (1928). And there’s the Museum of Science and Industry, the former Palace of Fine Arts and the only structure that survives from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which Olmsted conjured up with Daniel Burnham.
But those are the names and places everyone knows. Here are buildings that tell little-known tales of strong-willed clients and architects to match.
Robert and Harriet Herrick House
5735 S. University (1900)
The Unhappy Professor: Actually Robert Herrick was not one of those clients. By most accounts he was an unhappy man who always regretted his move from MIT to the University of Chicago in 1893. When not in the classroom as a professor of English and rhetoric, he wrote bitter novels that depicted his new city as a place of sham, shame, and greed.
Herrick dreamed of a traditional English Tudor home for his family, but he was thwarted by Chicago’s predilection for creative nonconformity. Rather than hire an architect comfortable with the styles of the past, Herrick for some reason engaged Hugh M.G. Garden, an advocate for Chicago’s emerging modern design movement. Instead of picturesque gables and pointed arches, Garden presented the Herrick family with a flat, boxy brick design in which the only traditional elements were the wooden shutters that flanked the upper-story windows in front.
Herrick wanted brick from Boston, and that’s where it came from, and perhaps the shutters were another concession to the client. But against Garden’s hard-edged geometry they were also a modernist touch decades ahead of its time: as the Herricks opened and closed their shutters, the front of their home became an ever-changing composition of random patterns.
Letters survive in which Herrick grumbles about his house, and his feelings are suggested by the unflattering depiction of architects and builders in his 1904 novel, The Common Lot. But today, even missing its signature shutters, the Herrick House seems as contemporary as ever among its street’s more traditional dwellings of similar vintage.
St. Thomas the Apostle Church
5472 S. Kimbark (1924)
The Progressive Priest vs. the Passionate Architect: When Hyde Park’s St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic church decided it needed larger quarters in the early 1920s, the building that resulted was far from the usual fare of Gothic arches, soaring steeples, and baroque shrines. Under the leadership of the Reverend Thomas Vincent Shannon, the church secured the services of architect Barry Byrne, whose passion for creative architecture was fanned while he was a young draftsman in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park studio. Byrne was a devout Roman Catholic strongly committed to bringing church architecture into the modern age.
His conception for St. Thomas proved to be a milestone in contemporary Catholic church design. On the streetscape it conveyed reverence and respect, with a solid-looking presence that drew the eye upward to the heavens. Yet at the same time it celebrated its identity as a building of brick—with flat walls, ziggurat corners, and an overall sense of unadorned craftsmanship. The plain brick walls merged into fluid borders of terra cotta created in collaboration with Byrne’s friend and longtime artistic collaborator, Alfonso Iannelli. Windows were given the soft, crimped edges of a hand-formed pie crust, and the church met the heavens with a row of upwardly extending finials that interlocked with the sky.
But Byrne was unable to fulfill his vision. As the church neared completion in 1923, a dispute with the pastor resulted in his and Iannelli’s removal from the project. Many elements of their design were reworked by the succeeding architect, who had little understanding of or sympathy with the original concept. Among the casualties was Byrne and Iannelli’s delicate entrance, which was replaced by a heavy-handed oversize triangle of ornamental terra cotta. The interior was also modified, with more traditional fixtures and decorations and more conservative designs for the leaded glass windows. But even with these compromises, St. Thomas the Apostle is a powerful work of architecture worth visiting.
5551 S. University (1937)
Shaking Up the Neighbors: In the mid-1930s, as the Depression relaxed its grip, a most unusual building began to rise among the older houses of South University Avenue. The flat front, large windows, and first-floor garage doors had perplexed neighbors suspecting that a factory was surreptitiously being erected in their midst. The appearance of what looked like venetian blinds would not have been considered unusual except that they were mounted outside the windows.
It turned out to be, well, not really an apartment building but more like three houses stacked on top of one another, a cooperative venture built to give three families separate homes. Two of the owners were the building’s architects: George Fred Keck and his younger brother William, who’d made their reputation as innovative modernists with two highly publicized model homes for Chicago’s 1933-’34 Century of Progress. The third unit became the home of Louis Gottschalk, a University of Chicago history professor, and his family.
In planning the building, the brothers took into account the other houses on the block by choosing a similar reddish brick. But there the resemblance stopped. The virtually flat front, facing the street, was dominated by generous windows covered by metal louvers that could be adjusted from the inside, causing the façade to change its appearance—the same sort of effect created nearly 40 years earlier with the shutters of the Herrick House two blocks away.
Especially disconcerting to the neighbors, there was no front door. Instead, three garage doors extended across the first floor, allowing each tenant to drive into the building from the street. For anyone approaching on foot, there was a common entrance to the living quarters on the building’s side.
For years after it was finished the building remained the talk of University Avenue. William Keck’s daughter Margaret once told me that as a girl living there she became alarmed on hearing a disgruntled neighbor comment that somebody should “throw a bomb” at it. But you won’t hear much of that now: the building is not only a neighborhood landmark but an official Chicago one.
The Ralph and Rachel Helstein House
5806 S. Blackstone (1950)
A Lot With a Little: We’re likely to imagine mid-20th-century labor activists living in weathered old houses and apartments, meeting late into the night in smoke-filled living rooms or around rickety kitchen tables. Ralph Helstein is a legendary figure of Chicago’s labor movement in that period, but the Hyde Park home that he and his wife, Rachel, built in 1950 would never be chosen to play a labor leader’s home on TV.
For their architect, the Helsteins chose Bertrand Goldberg, the future designer of Marina City. He gave the couple a frame of unadorned raw concrete whose ultrathin floor slabs projected out beyond walls dominated by glass. The rooms of the house flowed together and the staircases seemed to float upward from the first floor, which remained an open space aside from the glass-enclosed and deeply recessed entrance vestibule.
For all its striking and modernist presence, the Helstein House was neither expensive nor extravagant. It was a demonstration of what common sense, ingenuity, and technology had to offer. Alterations have diminished some of its power, but it remains a striking presence in its neighborhood.
August and Isabel Gatzert House
4901 S. Greenwood (1912)
Modernism From the Old Country: Many of Hyde Park and Kenwood’s early-20th-century residents were well traveled and therefore familiar with European architectural trends. As a result area streets reflect a diversity of architectural movements far beyond the domestic influences typical of other Chicago neighborhoods.
Consider the Kenwood home built by August and Isabel Gatzert in 1912. August Gatzert was a German-born clothing manufacturer who traveled the world with his wife and studied city planning and infrastructure as a volunteer adviser to the Chicago Association of Commerce. Having seen the modernist designs of Germany firsthand, the Gatzerts engaged the Chicago architectural firm of Ottenheimer, Stern & Reichert to design them a home in the same vein. Traditional in form but elegantly minimalist in its details, the Gatzert House blends in comfortably with its neighborhood.
Largely forgotten in Chicago’s architectural history, Ottenheimer, Stern & Reichert designed many other interesting German and Austrian-inspired buildings here. Yet founding partner Henry Ottenheimer is probably best remembered for stabbing Frank Lloyd Wright in the back with a drafting knife during an office tussle while both were working under Louis Sullivan. “Today,” Wright recalled decades later in his autobiography, “I bear the welts of Ottie’s fancy work on my shoulder blades.”
The Frank and Frances Lillie House
5801 S. Kenwood (1901)
Sperm and Egg Man: Anyone who studied with Frank Rattray Lillie at the University of Chicago in the early 1900s knew exactly where babies came from. This prominent professor significantly advanced the field of embryology, and in recognition of his achievements his old home on Kenwood Avenue became a National Historic Landmark in 1976. But the house is equally important as a work of architecture. Frank and Frances Lillie chose the firm of Pond & Pond to create a house that at first glance seems to be absolutely simple, perhaps even severe. But on closer examination it turns out to be an exceptionally complex building whose subtle features reflect a high degree of craftsmanship and attention to detail.
At the turn of the last century, when the Lillie House was designed, the brothers Irving K. and Allen B. Pond were counted among Chicago’s most creative architects for the straightforward “builded beauty” of their designs. Builded beauty was their phrase, coined to express their belief that a building should forthrightly express the manner of its construction. The Lillie House is one of the finest examples of this philosophy, still forward-looking today though it was builded more than a century ago.
Editor’s note: When Irving Pond died in 1939, he left behind a handwritten memoir that was finally published last year. Chicago architect David Swan, who edited Pond’s manuscript, will lecture on it and on Pond & Pond’s architecture this Sunday; afterward the author of this article will help Swan lead a walking tour of Pond & Pond buildings.