HISTORY SO SOON?
Pioneer Days of the Hyde Park Historical Society
Hyde Park History, Vol. 21, NOs. 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer 1999)
A talk given by Clyde Watkins, a founder of the Society, at the annual meeting, February 20, 1999
The title of “founder” is probably undeserved, because it implies an image of some lone and far-sighted character doing things by himself. That was never the case with us – we were a typical Hyde Park committee from the start. If the organization we celebrate was indeed my idea, I must assume that others had at least considered it long before I ever did. What spurred me to action, however, was the confluence of two forces in my life.
First, in the late 1960s after I was out of college – and therefore it was too late to change my major one last time – I began to develop an interest in U. S. history, especially Chicago history, between about 1870 and 1910. Plenty of others were ahead of me in that, fortunately, and there is a lot of wonderful literature, plus many enthralling photographs, available for study.
Second, I always had a thing about that great little building. Throughout my undergraduate years at the University, whenever I would pull an “all-nighter” in yet another vain attempt to salvage some term paper – or worse yet, an entire course – I would inevitably end up around 6:00am savoring the 42 cent special at Steve’s Lunch. (For that price you got two eggs, bacon, potatoes, toast and coffee!) I loved the building, and continued to fantasize about what I later learned to call “adaptive reuse.” No doubt my first notions were along the lines of a swingin’ bachelor pad or the nightclub I yearned to run at that age. But as I matured, I continued to watch the building through its subsequent incarnations and its decline. I knew it was somehow associated with the great Illinois Central Station from the World’s Colombian Exposition, but at that point I wasn’t exactly sure how, and there was no one to tell me – or so I thought.
By 1974 the building had sunk to the level of a storage shed for the two-wheeled carts they used for delivering newspapers, and it was clearly headed for ruin. Coincidentally, Albert Tannler, assistant curator of special collections at Regenstein Library at that time, had just completed the first edition of One in Spirit, the pictorial history of the University, and it captivated me, primarily because of its many references to the concurrent development (or disintegration and redevelopment) of the neighborhood. And that was the moment of my epiphany. A local historical society could undertake the research and preservation of its past in context of the city of Chicago and the nation. And such an organization could house itself in my favorite structure (the true identity of which I now appreciated). Let the psycho-historians ponder which was the means and which the end, in my mind the two were linked from the start.
Hyde Park Historical Society Building, Formerly Steve’s Lunch
Here are a few dates and events that led to our eventual founding:
Tom Jensen, a U-High classmate, and I organized the first public forum to discuss the establishment of a proposed “Hyde Park-Kenwood Historical League.” We met at St. Thomas Church and Len Despres was our speaker. (I cannot find the exact date, but I believe a copy of the flyer from the meeting is already in our Ferriswheel.)
June 24, 1975
Several of us met at Jean Block’s apartment for lunch to discuss how to get organized and moving. It took a while, as it turned out.
January 13, 1976
A larger formation was hosted by Victoria Ranney in her home.
March 22, 1976
Another planning meeting was hosted by Thelma Dahlberg at her home, followed by yet another in April. These meetings continued throughout the following eight months.
June 15, 1976
My calendar indicates that this was my first meeting with Win Kennedy to discuss acquiring the building.
November 8, 1976
Jean and I called on Muriel Beadle to ask her to become our first president. She agreed on the spot and decreed that the name of the organization would be the Hyde Park Historical Society. She hosted our first official board meeting at her home two weeks later on November 22.
January 28, 1978
The Hyde Park Historical Society received its official charter as an Illinois not-for-profit corporation.
March 27, 1978
Robert and Lucille Rouse, owners of 5529 South Lake Park, finally signed the bill of sale for the property, for $4,000, after continued and heroic efforts by Len Despres to close the deal. Kennedy, Ryan, Monigal Associates was our agent.
February 2, 1979
Our first lease for the land under our building was signed with the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad – five years at $20 per year.
July 20, 1980
The “Completion Fund,” our $45,000 capital campaign to purchase and renovate the headquarters, kicked off on July 4, 1978, initiated by a “Charter Membership” drive for 100 members at $100 each. Encouraged by a $10,000 challenge grant from the Field Foundation of Illinois, the drive was successfully concluded. Jean Block was instrumental in this effort.
October 26, 1980
The Grand Opening of our magnificently renovated and restored new headquarters took place, thanks to Dev Bowly’s endless talent, work and sacrifice. We began with a parade down Lake Park Avenue and concluded with speeches that will live forever, assuming anyone remembered to keep notes, which I doubt.
Some of the earliest board members are still serving: Dev Bowly, Carol Bradford, Alta Blakely and Richardson Spofford. Other early members were Ted Anderson, Margaret Fallers, Gary Husted, Muriel Beadle, Jean Block, Berenece Boehm, Randy Holgate, Anita Anderson, Michael Conzen, Rory Shanley-Brown, Thelma Dahlberg, Phillis Kelly, Betty Borst, Eleanor Swift, Leon Despres, Charles Beckett, Maggie Bevacqua, Malcolm Collier, Emma Kemp, Gerhardt Laves, John McDermott, and Clyde Watkins.
HPHS Board of Directors, 1999:
Alice Schlessinger, President
Winston Kennedy, Vice President
Roland Bailey, Treasurer
Margaret Matchett, Secretary
Stephen Treffman, Archivist
Douglas Anderson, Robert Bator, Bert Benade, Alta Blakely, Devereaux Bowly, Carol Bradford, James Comiskey, Leon Despres, Iris Frank, , Theresa McDermott, Soubretta Skyles, Richardson Spofford.