The history of Hyde Park begins with the arrival in Chicago of a young lawyer, Paul Cornell. He was descended from a family which first arrived in the “New World” in 1638. His cousin, Ezra Cornell, was the founder of Cornell University. Cornell saw the potential in the land along Lake Michigan south of the city, and in 1853 he purchased 300 acres of land, between what are now 51st and 55th streets, deeding some to the Illinois central Railroad for the purpose of establishing a passenger station for commuting to the city. He called the area Hyde Park, after the area of the same name in London. The Township of Hyde Park included the entire southeast side of the city, from 39th Street on the north, city limits on the south, State Street on the west and Lake Michigan on the east.
Residential development in “Hyde Park Center” proceeded even more quickly after the 1871 Chicago Fire. Many of the city’s “captains of industry” built large estate homes, especially in the Kenwood area north of 51st Street. The Swift and Wilson meat packing families, the Ryerson Steel family, railroad executives, and other businesses and professional men were among the owners in those early days.
The village of Hyde Park was annexed by the city of Chicago in 1889. The residents of central Hyde Park were opposed, but residents farther south voted overwhelmingly in favor, in the belief that they would receive better municipal services thereby. Very soon, the advantage of being part of the city became apparent. The community was selected by the American Baptist Education Society as the site of the University of Chicago, well endowed by John D. Rockefeller and local philanthropists. Shortly thereafter, Chicago won the right to host the world’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The selected location was what is now Jackson Park. These two events led to a great building boom in the neighborhood, including workmen’s cottages, residential hotels, professors’ homes, businesses, parks and other institutions. During the first decades of the 20th century, the area was one of the choice residential sections of the city. In addition, there was a substantial arts colony, which included as residents writers Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Ben Hecht, and Chicago Symphony conductors Theodore Thomas and Frederick Stock. The area was a center of progressive political and social activity in the city. Clarence Darrow was another of its most famous residents. During the late 19th and into the 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright made significant additions to the area’s built environment, most notably with the Robie House at 58th and Woodlawn, considered by many to be the most important residence in American architectural history.
With the onset of the Great Depression housing construction and maintenance stagnated. The arrival of southern African-Americans in the Great Migration precipitated a massive “white exodus” from communities all over the south side. Many areas changed from all-white to all-black within a few years. There were some in the local community who hoped to prevent that from happening in Hyde Park. The Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference began with an interracial group that met in 1949. In 1952 the Southeast Chicago Commission was organized with the support of the University of Chicago and the business community. These two organizations worked in tandem during the period of federally-funded urban renewal from the mid-1950’s to the early 1970’s. A local savings and loan bank was founded to assure the availability of home mortgages in the area, when other lenders were often redlining any area undergoing racial change. New schools, shopping centers, and social service agencies were built or expanded, but at some cost. The various plans and projects were controversial in many ways, but the result was the evolution to a stable multi-racial community which continues to attract new residents.
In recent years, the areas around central Hyde Park including Woodlawn, North Kenwood, Oakland, Washington Park and Bronzeville have experienced a renaissance of growth and development. Land which had lain empty in these areas and throughout Hyde Park is being developed with new residential and business construction. Fine older homes have been rehabilitated. Racial dividing lines have become fluid or transparent. The University of Chicago continues to expand, with new hospital, research, academic, athletic and dormitory buildings having been completed or initiated in recent years. Community groups continue to serve as watchdogs for social and physical developments in the area, to assure that community input is received and respected.