Lost Hyde Park: Hotels, Resorts and Entertainment Venues | Evening Digest

The Hyde Park Hotel once commanded the intersection of Hyde Park Boulevard (51st Street) and…

The Hyde Park Hotel once commanded the intersection of Hyde Park Boulevard (51st Street) and Lake Avenue, an elegant landmark between two communities. The main facade faced the north toward fashionable Kenwood, while to the south was the increasingly commercial district of Hyde Park. The site of this hotel changed greatly over the ensuing years – following urban renewal it was replaced by a small, suburban-style shopping center as the business areas of Hyde Park were modernized. That too has been replaced, by another vision of the Hyde Park neighborhood. 

 A half-century after the Hyde Park Hotel came down in the name of progress, a multifamily residential project intended to “invigorate one of Hyde Park’s most important gateways” was unveiled for community approval early in 2013. Architect Jeanne Gang commented that the new project’s most important element was its “urbanism,” as she sought to orient the project toward the surrounding public spaces in order to encourage much needed vitality at the street level. 

Vitality is what defined the Hyde Park Hotel. The building had been constructed in several stages for Paul Cornell by Starrett & Fuller. The first section of the hotel dates to 1888; it was a pressed brick and stone building, 80-feet-by-85-feet, rising four stories in height. Always with an eye toward the future, Cornell had the walls built strong enough to accommodate additional stories. 

Theodore Starrett was not an architect by training, but a structural engineer who worked with Burnham & Root. He partnered with George Fuller for construction of this building and it was a pioneer in hotel design. The first iron-framed construction in the city, the electric lights, electrically operated elevators, telephone service and steam heat were all considered revolutionary for hotels of the time.

Another three floors of the hotel were under construction by 1892, in anticipation of the Columbian Exposition. The impact of the fair on the neighborhood was profound, as this was but one of the luxury hotels that rose to accommodate the huge number of expected visitors. 

A view of the Hyde Park Hotel, with the addition of three stories to the original four-story structure and an annex to the south. Paul Cornell’s house stood on the corner lot to the west, barely visible on the right in this image.

Rounded bays at the corners of the hotel enlivened the rectangular red brick facade, while providing well-lit interior rooms. The luxurious skylit lobby was paneled in marble and guests tread upon lush carpets. Dinner was served under a Tiffany glass ceiling; no one was permitted in the 500-seat dining room without formal attire, enhancing the already elegant setting. When the annex was completed in 1915, the Hyde Park Hotel nearly doubled its size, providing over 300 guest rooms. The property remained in Cornell’s family long after his death, and was sold by his estate in 1947.

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By 1925, the area surrounding the Hyde Park Hotel was densely occupied and far less exclusive, as demonstrated by the addition of large parking garages, multiple dry cleaning establishments and a sheet metal shop seen in this portion of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlas. 

From the time it opened until the 1930s, the hotel represented fine living, high fashion and elegance. However, by 1962 the hotel had served its purpose; its luxurious dining room had become a cafeteria and guest rooms had been cut into kitchenette apartments. Deemed too costly to restore, the hotel that was for years the ultimate in luxury was slated to be demolished under the Hyde Park Urban Renewal Plan. Residents moved on and rooms were stripped bare of their furnishings. The Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference wistfully collected chandeliers, terracotta pieces and even a staircase, memories of an era long past.

After the hotel was razed the land lay vacant until The Village Center strip mall was completed in 1969. The facility offered residents an A&P Supermarket (later Village Foods), the Original Pancake House, a drug store and liquor store. All structures were demolished in 2014.

As planning for a new residential building on the site began, much had changed since Cornell erected his hotel. The innovations of that earlier era — steam heat, call bells, and luxurious dining rooms — were replaced by concerns for the environment, sustainability and affordability. City Hyde Park, the name for the latest project to occupy the site, was erected on the vacated strip mall in 2015. The project was LEED-certified; designed to blend “environmental, economic and occupant-oriented performance” into a green building. The architect of the project, Jeanne Gang, also remarked that the architecture of Chicago’s large buildings is “all about the structure,” and City Hyde Park is no exception. The expression of the building’s concrete frame is enhanced by a series of balconies that create an energetic, tactile facade. 

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The Chicago Beach Hotel stood the east of the 51st Street intersection along the lakefront. It was erected in 1892, most likely by the firm of Starrett & Fuller, and the structure pictured above was demolished in 1927. 

A block east of the 51st/Lake Park intersection was the site of another of the early large structures constructed in Hyde Park, in an area then described as “sand waste.” During the summer of 1892, excavation began and the concrete foundation was laid for what was anticipated to be the finest resort hotel on the lakeshore, the Chicago Beach Hotel. (No doubt, Paul Cornell would have disagreed). 

Backed by investors, Kenwood resident Warren F. Leland directed the design and construction of the six-story hotel, one of Chicago’s largest resorts for both permanent residents and transient guests. Leland came from a well-known family of hotel proprietors and had a long career. His hotel was elegant — an interior rotunda of 148-feet-by-52-feet welcomed visitors to the resort, which was surrounded by a long veranda overlooking the lake and Cornell (Harold Washington) Park. On the north, the shoreline made a sweeping curve and the wading beach stretched 500 feet into the lake, with a view north toward the business district. 

The resort not only offered guests beautiful surroundings, but also an abundance of activities: there were walks and drives, sailing, swimming, golf, tennis, walking, tally-ho rides, dancing and live music. Leland introduced many new features to hotel life, including serving meals from 5:00 o’clock until late at night in the dining room, where one could look out over miles of open water while enjoying sumptuous food. Boardwalks and cabanas were readily available in the summer months on the beach, and Morgan’s Pier was used as a boat landing.

The sweeping curve of the shoreline and wading beach near the Chicago Beach Hotel were not necessarily as intended by nature. Those boardwalks and cabanas owed their sandy perches to the ingenuity of one James Morgan. Unknown to those landing at Morgan’s Pier, the structure had provided a most different service. The original shoreline was quite a different place, with room for but a single residence, that of Dr. Jacob Bockee. He built on a desolate sandy parcel (at what is now Cornell and 50th Streets) before leaving for service in the Civil War. 

By 1873, James and Rebecca Morgan acquired the Bockee house, and it was moved to a new location overlooking the park today known as Harold Washington Park. An ingenious fellow, Morgan then improved the parcel north of 51st Street. According to the April 3, 1910, Chicago Tribune, “About the time of the Chicago fire, James Morgan purchased a tract of three acres of land north of 51st Street and east of the Illinois Central tracks. . . . Despite the continual washing away of the shore lands, this particular tract now contains 11.52 acres, or an increase of nearly 8 acres in thirty-nine years.” Morgan made this land through a simple method. With a “pile driver, a crew of men, a few boats of lumber,” he built a series of piers. Morgan kept a clamshell dredge busy taking sand from the outside these structures and dumping it on the inside, a quick and inexpensive way of making land that he claimed as his.

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A 1910 Chicago Daily News image of the Hyde Park lakefront looking north. The Chicago Beach Hotel appears to the left, with Morgan’s Pier on the right. 

The newly made land wasn’t exactly scenic. When residents of the Boat Club wanted to erect a boathouse at the lakefront in 1886, the Hyde Park Herald noted that the condition of the shoreline was hardly idyllic. Morgan had left his worn out pile driver there to rot, the shell of Paul Cornell’s old hotel stood as fire-blackened ruins a few blocks south, and the remains of an old tin factory only increased the number of eyesores.

That all began to change, when in 1892 planning for the World’s Fair began. Morgan leased the west 400 feet of his tract to the Chicago Beach Hotel Company and construction of a luxurious lakefront hotel began.

The hotel was a tremendous success. However, controversy arose in 1912 when the South Park Board took steps to fulfill Daniel Burnham’s plan to improve Chicago’s lakefront. Condemnation proceedings began against all lakefront property owners to compel them to release their littoral rights. (The owners of waterfront properties did not own the water itself, but instead enjoyed the right to use Lake Michigan and its surface as they desired.) 

The Illinois Central controlled the land from 12th Street south to 50th Street. The stretch from 51st to 53rd had been given to the city by Paul Cornell to be used in perpetuity for a public park; 53rd Street to 54th Street was owned by Harry W. Sisson & Associates and was occupied by the apartment hotel of the same name. T. A. Collins owned 600 feet south of 54th, and Fanny Bregh owned the remaining footage to 55th Street. H. R. Shedd owned from 55th to 56th. All released their rights to the lakefront except the Chicago Beach Hotel — the property between 50th and 51st Streets remained in litigation until 1926, when the hotel company finally gave up their littoral rights in exchange for the large piece of land north of the hotel grounds.

In the midst of litigation, the construction of a thirteen-story 550-room addition was announced in 1919. Morgan surely made a wise business venture with his manufacture of sandy landfill; the proprietors of the hotel purchased 12 acres for the hotel addition from Morgan’s daughter for $500,000 — in cash.

West of this storied site was Paul Cornell’s house, built on Harper Avenue, when he first developed the community now known as Hyde Park. 51st Street west of the intersection was then a quiet unpaved street, with houses sparsely placed. In the ensuing years the community grew; houses and then apartments came to line the avenue. In the early months of 1920 workers demolished several three-flat buildings on the southeast corner of Hyde Park Boulevard and Blackstone Avenue. A multi-use building rose on the site, named the Piccadilly.


George and Cornelius Rapp designed the Piccadilly Theater and Apartments in 1926. The theater stood at the rear of the apartment building and was demolished in 1972.

Residences and ground-floor shops were housed within the 14-story Piccadilly building, where entertainment magnate Herman Schoenstadt resided in a top-floor luxury suite during the 1930s and 40s. The Schoenstadt family opened one of the largest theaters on the South Side in the structure and the Piccadilly Theater quickly became the flagship of their theater chain. 

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The theater stood at the rear of the apartment building until demolished in 1972. Although that portion of the site is now a parking lot, the Rapps’ two-story lobby remains, tucked away behind the shuttered 51st Street entrance, pictured in the twenties above. Note the house from an earlier era to the left in the image.

During the roaring twenties new venues of varying sizes opened to cater to residents with disposable income and increased leisure time, as well as for visitors who came to enjoy the lakeshore. The Rapp brothers designed the largest of these elaborate entertainment palaces, the Piccadilly Theater on Hyde Park Boulevard, joining the neighborhood’s Frolic and Kenwood movie palaces. With its 2,500 seats and elaborate interiors, the “Pic” served the whims not only of the affluent and the middle class. 

Architects believed the movie house to be a great social equalizer — relatively inexpensive entertainment available to all classes. “Watch the bright lights in the eyes of the tired shop girl who hurries noiselessly over carpets and sighs with satisfaction as she walks amid furnishings that once delighted kings and queens,” commented architect George Rapp. 

Cinema palaces of the era typically featured several common elements, including a projecting marquee and large, elaborate main lobby. The Rapps’ design for the Piccadilly was slightly different; the marquee was flush with the Hyde Park Boulevard facade, with an enormous window above it trimmed in terracotta. To compensate for the lack of a vast lobby, the Rapps designed a double-height space with a small mezzanine above, giving the illusion of grandeur to patrons entering to the sounds of a piano and harp. The drama did not end there; the auditorium was the highlight of the building, designed in an ornate French Renaissance style. The luxurious interior was decorated with antique furniture, oil paintings, and copies of ancient sculpture the Schoenstadt family brought back from their many travels. 

In the ensuing years as the neighborhood changed, attendance declined and the theater closed in 1963. The University of Chicago purchased the property and nine years later the theater was demolished. The apartment building remains and although the theater is now a parking lot, traces of its former glory remain etched on the south wall of the structure — fading reminders of a bygone era.