When Paul Cornell purchased the land that would become the future site of Hyde Park Township, he had a plan. According to Lee Bey, the architecture critic who spoke in front of the Hyde Park Historical Society last Saturday night, the township was to be “a statement.” It was a place where a university might one day be built, a place where arts and industry would flourish, a place “that’s going to say something and do something,” said Bey. Giving a talk entitled “The Hidden Treasures of Hyde Park Township,” at the Quadrangle Club, Bey took his audience on a tour of the place without which “Chicago would not be Chicago.”
The presentation came at the end of a dinner honoring the winners of, fittingly, the Paul Cornell Awards for service to the city and the Marian and Leon Despres Awards for historical presentation. As dessert and coffee came out to the dinner tables, Bey stepped up to the podium and began to speak rapidly, excitedly about his favorite hidden architectural treasures on the South Side. His speech galloped through sites from 53rd street down to the border with Indiana, and the buildings he covered were eclectic, from churchs and schools to a bank and a laundromat.
In Hyde Park, he pointed out a church on 53rd and Blackstone built in 1889, and the Mansueto, a library opened in 2011. He pointed out the swanky Shoreland, and how he had never until recently noticed the nautical theme of its terra-cotta ornamentation. In Bronzeville, he pointed out the ISF Bank on 46th Street and the Liberty Baptist Church on 49th Street, calling them “incredible expressions not only of architecture but black identity.” He praised the Gary Comer Youth Center’s architect for having talked with local residents and incorporated their ideas into the structure of the building, so that he could build a community center that people actually wanted to use.
Going farther South, Bey pointed out the beautiful, but endangered St. Lawrence Church on 72nd street, the gorgeous box office on the Regal Theater on 79th Street, and the modernist “Pride Cleaners” laundromat on 79th Street. “This is one of the five buildings in Chicago where, if it caught on fire, I’d be there with water to put it out,” said Bey. He ended at the Pullman Factory and company town, an area so significant in labor and civil rights history that legislation has been proposed to turn it into an urban national park.
What was surprising was just how much there was still to discover. For the ISF Bank, a modernist structure of striking triangular lines, Bey had no idea who the architect even was — he just knew that it was a made by a firm called, unromantically, “Bank Builders.” When he opened up the floor for questions, the audience chimed in with even more buildings and treasures that he hadn’t heard of yet. Their questions were a reminder that Hyde Park Township did, indeed, become a site of museums and steel mills, the site of the White City and the Black Renaissance, and the site of still more treasures to be discovered. In other words, Hyde Park Township became more than Paul Cornell ever imagined that it would be.