This an installment in a periodic series discussing the personalities behind the “Honorary Ways” in Chicago.
One of the closest honorary ways to the University, this block of Kimbark may seem like a quiet, boring residential street to casual passersby, but it holds several Hyde Park landmarks. The first is the Foreign Car Hospital, known to auto aficionados throughout Chicagoland. The FCH has provided top of the line service since 1910 that draws customers from the North Side and farther. Prices are a bit higher than at some of its competitors, but the FCH is known for its expertise and professionalism as well as its slight eccentricity. In the late fifties and early sixties it was owned by Bob Lester, a professional jazz guitarist, sports car racing enthusiast and editor of the car magazine “Wheel Spin.” On weekends Lester and the rest of the garage raced MGs and Austin-Healeys on tracks in the Chicago suburbs as far as Wisconsin. Lester died in 1966, the same year current owner and manager Pat arrived. These days he and the FCH’s staff of three mechanics handle about eight cars at a time in their old garage, which looks much the same as it must have eighty years ago. Appointments must be made weeks in advance, since in addition to word of mouth the garage, the garage gets publicity through magazines and the Internet. Over the years the UofC has provided the FCH with workers as well, as work through a stream of graduates or dropouts turned mechanics.
On both sides of its almost hidden entrance stand the twin houses of the FCH’s two founders, built in 1917. The rest of the block is a mixed community. Elderly residents who have been here for the better part of the century live next to UofC married student housing. Houses from the sixties and seventies are only a few doors down from a set of greystone residences at the corner of 54th that date back to the 1890s, when they were built with help from the church. The church burned down before it could be removed during the wave of urban renewal in the fifties. Where it once stood is now a tennis court, surrounded by the two square blocks of Nichols Park that used to be solid apartment buildings.
At the head of the street stands the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, designed by Chicago architect and Frank Lloyd Wright disciple Francis Barry Byrne. Byrne would later go on to win acclaim for many other ecclesiastical commissions including the well-known Church of Christ the King in Cork, Ireland. The Church of St. Thomas, dedicated in 1924, was the new home of Hyde Park’s Catholic parish, founded only 8 years after Hyde Park itself in 1869. It features works of art such as a pietÃ and a set of stations of the cross by Alfeo Faggi, sixteen 24-foot stained glass windows by Valentine D’Ogries that took seven years to complete, and a bas relief of Jacob wrestling with the angel by artist Harold Bloom (no, not that one.) The Father Thomas J. Fitzgerald for whom the block is named was a reverend at the church for over 25 years. Born in 1917, he was ordained in 1942 and served at the now defunct Little Flower Catholic Church elsewhere on the South Side before coming to St. Thomas the Apostle and Hyde Park.