Of Beds and Breakfasts: Alternative lodgings on the mid-South Side

Peter and Paula Schuler, photo by Samantha Wishnak
On November 4, a small group of Hyde Parkers voted the 5th Ward’s 39th precinct dry, effectively canceling plans to replace the decrepit Doctors Hospital with Hyde Park’s first real hotel. Fortunately, a host of alternative lodging options exist around the neighborhood. Why stay at the boring old Ramada at 49th and Lake Shore when you can relax in the comfort of someone else’s home, in an old-fashioned bed & breakfast?

One of the area’s newest B&Bs is tucked away in Woodlawn, where owners Peter and Paula Schuler have been operating University Quarters (6137 S. Kimbark, (773)855-8349) since March 2007. “We’re kind of in a unique situation,” says Peter. “This block is like a master’s thesis in urban sociology.” This is no understatement; the Schulers hire their low-income neighbors to help out at the B&B, while a few doors down live students and professors at the University of Chicago. Not including the current wave of Obama-seeking journalists, Peter estimates that one third of his guests are families of prospective or current students, one third visiting professors, and one third convention attendees commuting to McCormick Place. Many are repeat customers who have grown attached to the Schulers’ cozy living room, delicious breakfasts, and large dog Lulu. “We’re the classic bed & breakfast,” says Peter. “The proprietors are here and involved.” Like all B&B licensees in Chicago, the Schulers are required to live on-site as well as serve breakfast, submit to periodic inspections, and provide a parking spot for each guest room, among a host of other requirements.

These requirements can prove onerous at times. After five years of operation, Kimbark Bed & Breakfast in leafy Kenwood recently shut down. There was “absolutely” enough demand to sustain the business, according to the owner, who preferred to remain unnamed. “My guests were almost exclusively professors visiting.” The only problem was the licensing process, which demanded that the owner take cooking classes, erect a fire escape on her landmarked home, install smoke detectors in every room, and pay a “hefty fee” every year. In the end, she and her husband decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.

A few blocks over, the Hutchins House Bed and Breakfast (4810 S. Ellis, (773)548-5534) has managed to make it work. The building housing it, built just after the nearby 1893 Columbian Exposition, served as St. George’s School for Girls from 1946 to 1964, but by the time Sue and Tony Kossiakoff purchased it in 1998 the old mansion had become a mess. The two spent two and a half years restoring it. “When I began, my basis was that this was first and foremost our family home,” says Sue, and although their daughters have grown up and moved out, Hutchins House has a family feel. Tony, a department chair in the University’s Biological Sciences Division, gives guests a lift to campus in the mornings, and when parents come to visit Sue invites students to drop by for breakfast. Unlike the Schulers, who advertise heavily on Google, the Kossiakoffs try to keep their B&B more low-key out of respect for the neighbors, and Sue estimates that 95 percent of their guests are referred by departments at the University. These guests have run the gamut, though, from Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (a visiting professor) to current Ambassador to Uzbekistan Richard Norland (visiting his daughter). “We’ve had collaborations start around the breakfast table,” says Sue.

Word of mouth has contributed to rising demand at Hutchins House, and some rooms during graduation season are booked as early as four years in advance. Nevertheless, the Kossiakoffs’ rate is always a steady $155 per night (not including tax). “I don’t run it the way a real business is run,” Sue says. Peter Schuler agrees. Given the lack of convenient lodging, he says, “Sue Kossiakoff and I believe we’re doing some kind of public service.”

Photo by Samantha Wishnak