Midway Plaisance Walking Tour

59th West to Woodlawn / 59th West to Ellis / Cottage Grove / 60th East to Woodlawn / 60th East to Blackstone

Woodlawn Avenue to Ellis Avenue

Rockefeller Chapel

Rockefeller Chapel

Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue

Commissioned 1918,

Completed 1928

Goodhue, according to Chicago's Famous Buildings was "one of the major masters of the American Gothic Revival of the 1920s." The chapel is influenced by the Byzantine-Romanesque style, which makes it more stolid than the English Gothic style of much of the quadrangles to the west. Goodhue was true to his Arts and Crafts roots and made the building express its true structure-- solid masonry faced with Indiana limestone. The arches and buttresses are not decorative--they are essential and load-bearing. The walls of the tower are 8 feet thick. The height from sidewalk to chapel roofline is 102 feet.

This is the only building on campus to carry the name of the founder of the university, John D. Rockefeller. He had asked that it be named University Chapel, but it was renamed after his death.

He earned the name of founder by pledging $600,000 to launch a new Baptist University of Chicago (and earlier one had gone bankrupt), provided that Chicagoans raised another $400,000 and that other donors financed most of the building. He thought he was getting a liberal arts college, but after he hired William Rainey Harper as president, the vision transformed into that of a major research institution. To attract the best faculty in the world to "Porkopolis," Harper was paying exorbitant salaries, so that Rockefeller had to step in repeatedly to cover operating deficits in the rapidly expanding institution. Rockefeller gave a final gift of $10 million in December 1910, which included funds for a University Chapel, which was to seem central to the campus to remind the students of God. In all, Rockefeller gave $35 million between 1892 and 1910, the equivalent of $620 million today. He reputedly called it "the best investment I ever made."

There are 70 sculptures on the outside walls, done by Lee Lawrie (1877-1963) and Ulric Ellerhausen. Lee Lawrie was born in Germany, raised in Chicago, and a former assistant of Augustus Saint Gaudens. Lawrie handled all the carving up to 30 feet. Ulric Ellerhusen handled the rest. He had studied under Lorado Taft. A full rundown of all the decoration (and events and concerts) of the chapel can be found at rockefeller.uchicago.edu. I'll just mention some of my favorites.

On the south face, around the Te Deum window, there are 15 lifesize statues. Across the top of the arch is the March of Religion Across the Centuries. To the left, around the corner, the march starts with Abraham, then proceeds across the front with Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Zoroaster, Plato, and St. John the Baptist.At the top of the arch is Jesus Christ. To the right of Jesus is St. Peter, followed by St. Paul, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St Francis, and Martin Luther with John Clavin around the right corner. Rising up beside the Te Deum window there are three statues on the left--Apostle James on the bottom, Prophet Amos in the middle, and Martyr John Hus on the top. On the right, there are Apostle John, Prophet Hosea, and Martyr William Tyndale. The front of the buttresses are the evangelists holding their symbols: Matthew (angel) Mark (lion), Luke (ox), and John (eagle).

There are two women on the south front--on the top arch springs are, left, St. Monica, the mother of St Augustine, and, right, St Cecilia, the patron saint of church music--fitting for a church famous for its massive pipe organ and carillon.

The chapel is open during the day and is truly worth a look. The carvings of angels with trumpets around the organ and the carvings on the south balcony are by Aloïs Lang. On the right side of the east transept door is a portrait of Bertram Goodhue himself holding the chapel, representing Art, on the other side is Bach, representing Music. Eighty feet overhead, the ceiling has 100,000 pieces of tile, representing St. Francis's Canticle of the Sun. It was dingy and nearly invisible until it was cleaned in 1987, when suddenly the ceiling burst forth in the current sparkle. The large stained glass windows were designed by Goodhue himself. The largest is 46 feet 3 inches high. He wanted them to be subtle in order to complement the limestone. The brightly colored lancet window along the aisles date from 1973. The magnificent cinquefoil windows over the alter were added in 1978. They curiously pick up any light available and during the Christmas Eve candlelight service, they are the last windows to glow with outside light.

On the east side, at the aisle door, there's a very literary moment. Dante with the coat of arms of Florence presides on the left and Milton with the coat of arms of England is in the corner.

The east transept door proves that a guidebook is helpful! I had guessed that this was John D Rockefeller on the left and William Rainey Harper on the right, but no! It's Woodrow Wilson with the Princeton coat of arms on the left and Teddy Roosevelt with the Harvard coat of arms on the right. On the left is an outline of the city of Athens, on the right is an outline of the city of Chicago. The transept above says "Holy Holy Holy" and a cross over the motto "In Hoc Signo Vinces." The iron hinges read "They shall bring the glory and honor of the nations into it."

One of the startling things that I discovered when I first got hold of the architectural descriptions of Rockefeller Chapel was that the black iron bands on the doors and the decorative stone on some of the parapets actually spell out inscriptions. This one on the west narthex door reads "I will have mercy and not sacrifice" on top and below "To obey is better than sacrifice." That's Learning tothe left of the door and Service to the right.

Further down at the west nave entrance, are Outstanding University Students. Laurens Shull, on the left in a doughboy uniform, was an all-Big Ten tackle in 1914-15. He died in World War I. He had been a member of the Baptist Hyde Park Union Church, where he is also memorialized with others who died in WWI in a stained glass window. He is with the seal of the United States. On the right is Margaret Green with the seal of the university. She died in her senior year, but I'm not sure yet why else she was outstanding. I've wondered whether, given the timing, she died in the Spanish Influenza, which struck people in their late teens and twenties by the millions. The inscription in stone between them is "Ye are the sons of the living God."

The tower has 277 steps up to the top. Tours of the carillon allow access to the tower. At the very top, there are four statues, each facing a different direction. It's a wonderful view to climb up there and peek over the shoulder of Erasmus to the north, Thomas a Kempis to the west, John Bunyan to the south, and Thomas Aquinas to the east.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated the carillon in 1932 in honor of his mother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller. It was a major feat getting the 100 tons of bells up high in the tower and in opening the tower up so the sound could soar out over the neighborhood. The carillon covers 6 octaves with 72 bells. The largest, the bourdon or bass bell, was a particular problem. I'd heard that the tower partially collapsed three times under the weight, though I haven't seen that story confirmed. It is the second largest carillon in the world and is supposed to have a particularly excellent tone. In the summer, every Sunday, there's a concert. Lying on the grass of Ida Noyes and listening on a nice summer evening is worth the trip. It also rings out after services and at various times during the week. At graduation, there is a swinging peal that is genuinely joyful--not least that the long hard haul to graduation is over. The trumpeter in the parapet doesn't hurt either.


President's House

University President's House

Henry Ives Cobb


This is the house that Henry Ives Cobb designed for the first president, William Rainey Harper. Cobb was building elaborate Gothic structures on the quadrangles, but the house he designed for the energetic visionary Harper is built of Roman brick (the same brick used in Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, built 14 years later one block over). Only the details are in Bedford limestone. The original entrance was off the Midway and had a big porch, which Robert Maynard Hutchins had removed. They complained that no light reached the drawing room. Hutchins was famous for shaking things up. That door is fenced off and the new door is now off University Avenue.

There was a "wedding procession" daily, led by an oriental band, clowns, wrestlers, and swordsmen.

Across the street on the Midway was the infamous and popular Street in Cairo, which stretched from Woodlawn to the far side of University Avenue. It had high plastered walls and a babel of sounds that did "not at first create an agreeable impression." The fair visitors entered through the broad low eastern portal, into a brick courtyard of tiny booths and bazaars, filled with Arabs, merchants, soudanes, donkey boys, performing mondeys, and snake charmers. The mosque , complete with minaret, had massive doors where regular services were held every Friday at noon. One of the highlights was the camel ride, where couples would get onto the seated camel and be thrown against each other as the camel rocked to its feet amid gales of laughter. But the most famous feature of the Street in Cairo was "Little Egypt"--and the other Egyptian girls in gauzy garments wth great golden ornaments in their head dresses and tiny cymbals on their fingers. Many went to tsk-tsk --several times--about the "writhing and contortions offensive to taste and disgusting to look upon." Friend Williams thought "the performance in this place goes a good ways. A female goes through all sorts of movements to the rub-dub-dub on a queer-shaped drum played by a native." (3)

There was also a remnant of the ethnographic exhibit in the midst of the Oriental fantasy. There was a group of Sudanese "warriors" living in bark huts thatched with reeds. As one guidebook mentioned, they were a reminder of the unsuccessful campaign to relieve General Gordon before he was "massacred" by the Sudanese at Khartoum.


The Quadrangles

University Avenue is the eastern edge of the original quadrangles of the university, designed by Henry Ives Cobb. The trustees looked over a number of proposals--including one from Louis Sullivan and his draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright. But they wanted the instant respectability of the collegiate Gothic.

The odd thing was that Cobb's collegiate Gothic was going up at the same time as the Fair's buildings and must not have seemed much different than the castles and minarets of the fair. Cobb in fact was on the National Board of Architects for the fair and designed the Fisheries Building and seems to have had a hand in the Streets of Algiers exhibit on the Midway. (Block 1983)

The choice of Gothic might have been a self-conscious contrast to the Classicism of the White City part of the fair. To quote Jean Block in her book about the building of the University, The Uses of Gothic, "Classic buildings were financed by merchant princes. Gothic building sarose through the combined efforts of humble workmen. Classicism referred to Europe's palaces. Gothic to Europe's great seats of learning. Classicism stood fo rthe burgeoning materialism of the Renaissance. Gothic for timeless religioius values."

One of the great unifying factors for the Quads was to be that all the buildings would be of Blue Bedford limestone from Indiana. Even the Alma Mater picked up on the contrast between the Gray City of enduring limestone and the White City of staph:

  • The City White hath fled the earth,
  • But where the azure waters lie
  • A nobler city hath its birth--
  • The City Gray, that ne'er shall die!

The original campus was bounded by 57th Street, University Avenue, 59th Street, and Ellis Avenue and was divided into seven subject quadrangles. The whole boundary was to be an exterior rampart that would be entered through gates and portals. Cobb said the idea was "to remove the mind of the student from the the busy mercantile conditions of Chicago and surround him with an air of quiet dignity." Wright, however, grumbled for decades that one couldn't educate truly American minds in borrowed European architecture.

It took a long time to get enough buildings built to create the ramparts and there still are some large gaps, especially north of where we're standing at 58th Street and University.


Foster Hall (and the women's dorms)


Foster Hall

Henry Ives Cobb


The southeast corner of the main quads is marked by a row of women's dormitories running up University Avenue with Foster Hall on the corner. Women were admitted to the university from the first, so a group of strong-minded women philanthropists stepped in to finance the dormitories--Foster, Kelly, and Green. And a number of tough-minded women professors from Wellesley took charge and insisted on creating appealing dorms (unlike the men's dorms that from the first no one liked). Cobb's interiors were notoriously cheerless and gloomy--as Hutchins had found in the President's House.

Mrs. Jerome Beecher was a sister of Silas Cobb, early trustee. Beecher Hall is a memorial to her husband, who early on had been one of the first to give money to build the university. Mrs. Elizabeth G. Kelly gave both Kelly and Green and the Classics Building.

Nancy S. Foster gave the same amount as the others--$50,000--but as the design that Cobb created for her dorm grew, the costs kept going up. Even when she was quite ill at the end of her life, she kept saying that she insisted on paying for the whole thing herself. It finally reached $83,000, the equivalent of many millions today. Nancy Foster had come to Chicago right after the founding in 1840 with her husband, Dr. John H. Foster. She was a Unitarian, but gave to the Baptist institution to further the cause of women.

Unlike the men's dorms, the rooms were singles, with more parlors and public areas for socializing. To mark the southeast corner of the quads the corner rises up into an oversized turret--quite visible in photos of the Midway during the fair.

I've wondered what the anxious parents of the first women students thought to have their daughters studying right above the notorioius Street in Cairo. It was controversial enough to let their middle-class daughters go off to a co-ed university.

This is the Temple of Luxor--Foster Hall can be seen behind it. You can see the entrance gate to Cairo Street to the right.


Social Science Building

Social Sciences Building

Shepley, Rutan, and Cooledge


The social sciences had an early and prominent role in the university. Thorstein Veblen had his offices in this building. He was known for muttering his lectures so that no one could hear him and distributing grades almost randomly. He wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class here and the university shows up in his analysis of Conspicuous Consumption as the new guiding force in society. He based his comments on big collegiate sports and academic life in general--and the corrupting link between the Captains of Erudition like Harper and the Captains of Industry like Rockefeller in particular--on his observations around the university.

The bosses below the parapet show things like the ballot, a calculating machine, and a slide rule with calipers--all designed to support the quote under the oriel from Lord Kelvin "When you cannot measure... your knowledge is...meager...and..unsatisfactory."

On the second floor there is a lovely Gothic lounge called the Tea Room where Saul Bellow said he hung out as an undergraduate and where there used to be a nice place to have a cup of coffee. Bellow's office when he was on the faculty of the Committee for Social Thought (and won the Nobel Prize for literature) was on the fifth floor.


Harper Memorial Library

Harper Memorial Library

Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge


William Rainey Harper was the first president of the University and a bit of a wunderkind, getting his degree in philology from Yale at 17. Rockefeller recruited him, but it was Harper's vision that turned a plan for a local Baptist college into a major research university to rival the best of the East Coast and Europe within just 10 years. It was his drive that got Rockefeller to continue to expand his support of this vision and convinced the Chicago civic leaders, including many who were not Baptist, to pour resources into it. When he died in 1906, there was a great deal of consternation that with him might die the University.

He had long struggled to get a permanent central library building. As a memorial to him, Harry Pratt Judson, his successor, made that the top priority. John D. Rockefeller, who had declared that he would not finance buildings, made the first and largest donation to honor Harper--about 75% of the total cost of the building. The subscription list read like a who's who of Chicago civic leaders. Eventually there were 2,000 donors.

The English Gothic structure was radically redone after the Regenstein Graduate Library opened on 57th Street. Most of the building was converted to offices and classrooms, but the third floor reading room is still a reading library. It's meant to be reminiscent of a 12th-century collegium with oak wainscoting, two-story Gothic windows, and stone and brick vaulted ceiling. Printer's marks mark the corbels supporting the arches. A huge bust of Walt Whitman guards the stairs, a somewhat unlikely role for the poet who bragged about his "barbaric yawp." They had a set back during construction when the west tower collapsed under its own weight in 1911. That's now where some stars on the faculty have their offices.

In 1893, Algeria and Tunis sat across the street, and behind them the Viennese Cafe. Algeria and Tunis took a different approach--they reproduced the streets and bazaars in miniature. There were brocades, swords, and sweetmeats for sale. There were also snake charmers. conjurors, fire eaters, and sword fighters.
Like the Street in Cairo, they had dancing girls in the Algeria Theatre--"beauties in their way, though with strongly marked features and somewhat too plump of outline." These girls though wore "modest attire."


Linné & the Winter Garden

Carl von Linné was a Swedish botanist. This is a statue by Johan Dyfverman and is a replica of the one in the Royal Gardens in Stockholm. He was famous for creating a taxonomic classification system that's still the basis for current biology.

The statue of Linné was brought here from Lincoln Park in 1976. The Swedish community that had erected it had moved away from the neighborhood and vandals had been marking it up. The statue was moved here and dedicated by the King of Sweden and the original Mayor Daley, who was as rare a sight in Hyde Park as the King.

It reminds me of Lorado Taft's original idea of lining the Midway with the statues of great thinkers and creators and demonstrates how interesting that might have been.

A stroll through the winter and reading gardens at www.hydepark.org

It used to stand all by itself on the flat panel of grass. The garden that now surrounds the statue is part of the new plan of the Midway Plaisance being developed by the university and the city of Chicago Park District. It's surrounded by a winter garden to the east and a reading garden to the west in front of Harper Library. The gardens are xeriscape or dry gardens, designed to survive only on natural rainfall. The winter garden is in part designed to have winter interest--evergreens and red stems and dramatic dried grasses--but also to trap snowfall into interesting patterns.

Check out the information about the winter garden, the plan for the Midway, and the skating rink schedule at www.hydepark.org.



Wieboldt Hall

Coolidge and Hodgdon


This was the last remaining gap in the rampart enclosing the southwest quadrangle. The arch is flanked by the busts of students in academic dress. In the spandrels above are two books--one is the first German Bible the other is the Strasbourg oath. Heads of Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Ibsen, Dante, Moliere, Hugo, Cervantes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Emerson run along the cornice. In between are scenes from some of their writings, proving that it's the Modern Languages building. W. A. Wiebolt was another one of the Retail Barons of Chicago. His department store chain was scattered all over the area--and so were his philanthropies.

Through the arch--

If you step through the arch into the Humanities Quadrangle, you'll see a grove of trees that predates the university. Thomas Wakefield Goodspeed (the hall to the left is named for him) described how in the University's first year, the first quadrangles on the south side were "flat but dry and covered with young oaks...[with] low ground which was a morass in the spring." The trees were saved by Judge Daniel Shorey, who was one of the first trustees. Being native, they are hardy in this zone and can cope with the poor soil. It was lucky they were left since the landscape scheme called for American elms, which didn't like the poor soil and succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the 1970's.

The arch through to the quadrangle contains a stone from Douglas Hall of the first University of Chicago that survived from 1856-1886 before it went bankrupt. It was at 32nd and Cottage Grove on land donated by Stephen A. Douglas, who had offered it to the Presbyterians for a college, but they turned him down. The plaque on top shows the image of the old hall.


Out on the fair across the street from the oaks and wetland was the Panorama of the Volcano Kilauea in a polygonal building. Over door was a large figure of Pele. Inside, circling the wall were 22,000 square feet of painting depicting the inferno of the Pacific. To help the effect of the painting along, there were electric lights, firewords, and the sound of hissing bubbling lava with coulds of steam rising. The point of observation was in the very heart of the crater. spectator encompased with a sea of lava.



Classics Building

Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge


The Classics Building marks the southwest corner of the quadrangles. It's decorated with carvings with classical themes. Along the central sindows are Homer, Cicero, Socrates, and Plato. In the cornices are illustrations of Aesop's fables. Under the oriels, are the labors of Hercules. There is a coffee shop on the second floor in what was once a classroom. The blackboard was hidden in the wainscoting on the east wall like a secret panel.

Perhaps somewhat fitting to the corn theme in the arch between Classics and Wieboldt, the fair located the Winnebago Indian Village across the street, where Indian baskets and "tasteful articles of native manufacture" could be bought.

This is a denizen of the Indian Village.

Another small enclave was the Chinese Village, located right where Ellis Avenue runs across the Midway now. It had a bazaar, restaurant, theatre, joss house, tea house and garden all in just two buildings. It was not popular and ran into financial difficulty. The theatre made no concessions to Western tastes--"the theatre is the centre of the attraction not for its amusements its acting or its equipments, but for the oddity of the performance....the pervading tone is morbid and ultra-pessimist. Virtue in woman and honor in man being conceded only to a few. There is no scenery. Female impersonators are thickly painted with a meaningless grin."--a description that reminded me powerfully of the file "My Last Concubine." The large sphere behind the Chinese Village was the Captive Balloon ride.

Midway Tour Introduction

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