Neil Harris has spent much of his academic career recording the history of the Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood, and making it accessible to his students and the broader public. He has actively promoted local history and education by participating in all sorts of programs and panels. His impressive title, the Preston and Sterling Morton Professor of History and Art History Emeritus at the University of Chicago, hints at the range of his academic interests. So does his long list of publications, which includes books on the cultural importance of museums, Chicago’s luxury apartment buildings (including several in Hyde Park), and circus entrepreneur P. T. Barnum.
Harris has also been an active participant in the life of the community. His study of a magazine called The Chicagoan (the local answer to The New Yorker) was the subject of a program several years ago at the historical society. Last October, he took part in a program cosponsored by the historical society and the Hyde Park Art Center on the history of artists in Hyde Park. His well-received presentation brought to life parts of the neighborhood’s history that had been long buried and did so in a clear and concise, and often amusing, way. The recent exhibit he and his wife, Teri Edelstein, curated for the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Chicago, “En Guerre: French Illustrators and World War I,” was highly acclaimed.
5735 S Harper Avenue in the historic Rosalie Villas District; Original architect: Robert Rae, Jr. / built: 1888
The stretch of Harper Avenue from 57th to 59th Street was Hyde Park’s first planned community. When developed by Rosalie Buckingham after 1883, there was no elevated railroad embankment. The cottages had a view of Lake Michigan to the east, and residents walked through the open prairie to swim, fish and even to get fresh drinking water. For many in Rosalie Villas, their house was a summer home.
Eventually there were 42 houses, a music hall, a club house, and fancy gates at either end of the street. An urban neighborhood eventually surrounded them. The music hall, club house and gates are gone, but little else has been lost. One house was demolished, termites having done most of the damage before the wreckers showed up, and was replaced by a modern house. Several houses on the east side of the street faced demolition by the University of Chicago to make way for their steam plant. The neighborhood put a stop to that. So far – fingers crossed – no tear downs, no McMansions and no tasteless exterior ‘upgrades’. The Villas remain a remarkably intact group of fine Queen Anne style houses.
Credit for this preservation success goes to the Rosalie Villas residents themselves – both past and present. A landmark district is often the only thing standing in the way of the destruction of an historic street like this. The many and very visible hands of the ‘market’ are always a threat. But from the beginning, the residents have established a tradition of respect for their properties and for their neighbors. While many of the exteriors have been modified over the years, generally the owners have made great efforts to retain their houses’ original style. Recently there has been a surge of quality work on Harper Avenue. The Moltz/Clement project at 5735 sets a particularly high standard for future historic restoration work in the Rosalie Villas District. Bad things can happen to the nicest of streets. But thanks to the care, pride and restraint of generations of Rosalie Villas residents, the future of their street has never looked brighter.
Dev Bowly had three great passions. One was public interest law. The second was the restoration of two historic inns in Michigan. The third was the Hyde Park Historical Society. In a 1998 oral history interview, he recalled how, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin law school, he took a job with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, where he worked for some 40 years. Much later, he combined his commitment to social welfare with his growing interest in architecture in a book called The Poorhouse, which outlines the history of subsidized housing in the Chicago area. At the time of his death, he was working on a biography of philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.
The renovation of two inns in Lakeside, Michigan, started as a weekend project. Dev fondly remembered trips to the area as a boy and jumped at the chance to buy a dilapidated lakefront stable. One thing led to another, and he was soon the owner of the two inns, which became a massive restoration project. Today those inns are weekend destinations for many Hyde Parkers.
I first met Dev in about 1970 when he led a bicycle tour of Hyde Park’s historic buildings. For years, he did walking tours of the neighborhood for preservation groups. In the mid-‘70s, casual conversations with Clyde Watkins led to the purchase and renovation of the tiny building on Lake Park that is now the headquarters of the Hyde Park Historical Society. “When we were finished, Muriel Beadle [wife of former university president George Beadle] referred to it as a little gem. I still remember that,” said Dev.
Some years later, Dev led another restoration. He worked with the Seminary Coop Bookstore to turn the basement of a building he owned at 57th and University into another, very successful bookstore.
“I’ve always been a Hyde Park chauvinist,” he said in the oral history interview. “I really can’t imagine myself living any place else.”
Judith Heineman is a nationally known storyteller and teacher. She introduced the storytelling festival known as Tellabration to Hyde Park almost 20 years ago. She taught storytelling at the Graham School for 10 years, and she is an Illinois Humanities Council “Road Scholar.”