Historic Hyde Park residences may receive official landmark status

By Zach Seward

The 20 row houses on the west side of the 5200 block of South Greenwood Avenue will become Hyde Park’s first historic landmark district, pending an upcoming City Council decision. If passed, the landmark legislation would protect all the 100-year-old buildings from significant changes to their unique stone facades.

The movement to landmark the semi-connected houses was organized by residents of the block who, according to resident Susan Johnson, “wanted to take the opportunity to protect them.”

Johnson is a minister at the Hyde Park Union Church and one of several residents who led the proposal process. She said that in a binding poll taken after several informational meetings more than 80 percent of the homeowners voted in favor of preserving the exteriors of their houses through landmark legislation.

According to Johnson, the few reservations that residents expressed had to do with the added bureaucratic layer that they would have to complete before making house repairs.

Resident Eric Hamp, who is the Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University and has lived on the block for the past 43 years, voiced some of those concerns. “There’s no doubt that this is an important block,” Hamp said. “It has outside architecture that is still very much intact and quite interesting. But I think it is important before anyone proceeds with something like this that we inspect what kinds of restraints would be imposed.”

The Preliminary Summary of Information Report of the landmark proposal was compiled by Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development and presented on February 5. It states that the “significant historical and architectural features” which the legislation seeks to protect is limited only to “exterior building elevations…visible from public rights-of-way.” The report states that building interiors and even non-primary facades remain unaffected by the landmark restrictions.

Despite some abstentions, most residents sided strongly in favor of the landmark legislation.

“We felt that this would be appropriate,” said resident Susan Art, the dean of undergraduate students at the University. “It really is a unique block, and it showcases the legacy of the neighborhood so well.”

Johnson said that the block’s unique character would be preserved by the landmark legislation. “Sometimes I think the city administration has not done enough to protect historic housing stock on the South Side,” said Johnson, citing broad demolitions of deteriorating historic buildings in the area over the past 10 years. “I commend the administration for being supportive of our efforts.”

According to Johnson the idea to create the landmark was not brought about by any immediate concerns about structural integrity. Still, the proposal comes at a time when other aged homes in Hyde Park are being significantly altered despite their historic value.

Of particular concern to preservationist Jack Spicer of the Hyde Park Historical Society are the recent additions made to the outside of a rare, wood-frame, Italianate-style house on the 5600 block of South Dorchester Avenue. The house was built in 1870—pre-dating the Great Chicago Fire—and Spicer said that more historic landmark districts in Hyde Park could prevent such alterations from damaging the historic character of noteworthy structures.

Speaking to the possible landmarking of the Greenwood row houses, Spicer said that the historical society is “very much in support of it.”

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, who was contacted by the row house residents, helped present the idea to officials in the Department of Planning and Development. She praised the residents for being “willing to take responsibility for maintaining the historic character of their homes.”

The houses were built in 1903 by prolific Chicago real estate developer Samuel Gross and they still showcase the fine craftsmanship used to build them. The brick and stone houses feature classical-inspired ornamentation and an array of unique architectural styles.

Though a plaque on the southernmost house declares the block the “original Professors’ Row of the University of Chicago,” some long-time residents claim that its actual nickname is Doctors’ Row.

According to Hamp and 46-year resident Judy Allen, the row was known in its early days for the high concentration of medical doctors who lived there. Hamp said that during the first decades of the Twentieth century, most people living in new developments in the immediate vicinity of the University were faculty, so the name Professors’ Row would carry little significance.

The official Summary of Information Report refers to the Professors’ Row nickname just once.