Midway Plaisance Walking Tour

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


This is my walking tour of the Midway Plaisance--that is, it is idiosyncratic and doesn't represent anyone's opinion but my own. I owe the idea for this project to George Rumsey, president of the Hyde Park/Kenwood Community Conference.

I'm still working on it, so feedback, corrections, and new information are very welcome!--

Sorry that I didn't realize there were e-mail problems--please use

pmorse325 "at" gmail.com

I've been somewhat interested in the Columbian Exposition of 1893 ever since I read The Education of Henry Adams and realized that he was ruminating about something that had once been here in my own backyard.

But my interest in the exposition was really piqued when I found out that my great-grandmother had left behind her family on the farm high up in the Catskills and had taken the daring journey all the way here the Chicago with her cousin.

I wanted to find out what had drawn her to risk such an adventure and what she might have seen.

This is a picture of her taken much later in her life.


Getting to the Midway

You can reach the Midway by car by getting off Lake Shore Drive at the 57th Street exit, driving to the west side of the Museum of Science and Industry and turning right at the stoplight. One block over, turn left on Stony Island Avenue and go south to 60th Street. Turn right on 60th Street to use the free parking lot there. On weekends and when the University of Chicago is not in session, there is plenty of street parking, but it can be in short supply during the week and the school year, when the lot is a better bet.

By bus, take the No. 6 Jackson Park Express from State Street. Or take the Metra train to the 59th Street Station.

The Midway Plaisance officially extends to Stony Island Avenue, but my tour will start from the punctuation mark on the east end, the Blanik Knight, which guards the railroad embankment. From either 59th Street or 60th, walk west, under the viaducts, to the statue.

If walking west to the starting point from the train station, you'll pass Harper Avenue on the west side of the tracks. This is one of the more famous blocks in Hyde Park--famous in particular for a block-wide celebration of Halloween. Sometimes the whole street has a theme. My favorite was the Alien Autopsy. The two blocks from 59th to 57th Streets were once a planned suburban development called Rosalie Villas, designed by the architect, Solon S. Beman, who designed the large planned community of Pullman. The developer was Rosalie Buckingham (who married Harry Gordon Selfridge, the general manager of Marshall Field and Co., and founder in London of Selfridge's). In 1883, she subdivided the two blocks of Harper into 42 villas and cottages, many of which were originally used as summer homes. There is no alley, but each house was supposed to have a driveway on the side of the house to reach the coach house in the back.. The houses originally had a view of the lagoons and had 60-foot deep backyards. When the train tracks were elevated for the Columbian Exposition, the backyards and the view disappeared.

If walking west to the starting point from the parking lot, you'll start in the location of the Plaisance Hotel, which survived late in time but was torn down from lack of maintenance. The University hopes to rebuild a hotel at this location if it gets funding. Next to the parking lot is an empty lot east of the tracks that's notable for two men who lived in the area. The most famous resident was Clarence Darrow--famous for defending Leopold and Loeb, our local celebrity murderers (see Hitchcock's Rope), and for defending Scopes at the Monkey Trial (see Inherit the Wind). He loved to take walks east to Jackson Park, where a bridge is named in his honor. A sign stands in front of where the apartment building once stood commemorating him. There is no sign commemorating the other local resident. It was while living near this block that Hugh Hefner supposedly created the first issue of Playboy in his third-floor walk-up apartment.

Whichever way you walk from the east side of the tracks, the large panel of muddy grass there is the planned future home of a Children's Garden as part of the 2020 phase of the South Campus Master Plan of the University of Chicago.

The Midway--And How It Grew

The rest of the tour will make more sense after a little background.

Paul Cornell, the founder of Hyde Park/Kenwood, had a vision in the 1850's of turning an undeveloped stretch of infertile land south of the city into an urban lakeside retreat for the middle and upper classes seeking to escape the crowds and dirt of "Porkopolis." This was not an easy vision to have since at the time there were just five houses across hundreds of acres. This area is a lakefront marsh ecosystem--as any local gardener knows, the soil is "dead"--sand and silt from glaciers and the repeated flooding of the lake. It holds water and loses nutrients and no farmer stayed here for long--which meant it was ripe for suburban development.

Paul Cornell had a plan for his community--and a number of the essential pieces of his plan can be seen here on the Midway. First off, he wanted a railroad to provide easy access to and from the city to the north so he bargained with the Illinois Central and Gulf Railroad--providing them with the land to lay their track into the city from the south in exchange for commuter rail stations for his yet to be built town. The viaduct running across the east end of the Midway Plaisance is still used by the electric commuter trains of Metra, by Canadian National freight trains, and by Amtrak passenger service. The tracks originally ran at grade level but were raised above traffic and pedestrians in time for the Columbian Exposition.

Second to his vision was a university that would shape the character of the community--following in the footsteps of his brother-in-law, who had founded the village of Evanston and had developed Northwestern University to act as an institutional anchor.

Looking west, you can see the University of Chicago lining both sides of the Midway. It was founded in 1891, and it indeed has defined the community just as Cornel envisioned it would.

Although it fulfills Cornell's vision, its arrival in Hyde Park had more to do with Marshall Field's investments than with Cornell.

Marshall Field owned acres of local sand and swamp, laced with barbed wire fences to control the cows and sheep. His acres were located west of Woodlawn Avenue. He'd purchased them for $1,253 an acre in 1879 as a speculation that the city would move southward. When civic leaders decided to take up John D. Rockefeller's offer to help finance an urban Baptist university, Field donated 10 of these acres to the cause--and then sold the university 10 more acres--at $10,000 an acre, a tidy profit. When the university rapidly expanded onto more of his holdings, Field raised his price again. He later made even more money selling lots to faculty members for houses along Woodlawn Avenue.


A third element in Cornell's vision was a network of open gracious green spaces vaguely reminiscent of Hyde Park in London and Hyde Park on the Hudson (where FDR's house stands). In 1869, Cornell and his South Park Commission were granted the right to set up a complex of parks and boulevards that would include Washington Park to the west, Jackson Park to the east on the lakeshore, and the Midway Plaisance as a system of paths and waterways connecting the two. Cornell's South Park Commission hired Olmsted, Vaux, and Co. to design his urban oasis--in what was then 1,055 acres of scrub oaks and swampy unsettled wetlands miles south of the city limits. But Vaux and Olmsted were already famous for turning a large stretch of unpromising wetlands into a grand urban park, having already completed New York's Central Park. Part of their plan was that the Midway would function as "a magnificent chain of lakes," allowing boaters to go from the ponds to be built in Washington Park to the lagoons to be developed in Jackson Park and through the lagoons to Lake Michigan.

In 1871, they completed detailed plans that were stored in the office of the South Park Commission--which was directly in the path of the Fire of 1871. With the detailed plans gone and capital diverted to rebuilding the city, only Washington Park was developed under the direction of H. W. S. Cleveland, becoming a beautifully landscaped destination at the south end of Grand Boulevard (now Martin Luther King Drive)--not the least because it also had a race course with a grandstand that seated 10,000 people. Jackson Park had some of the immediate lakefront developed for the summer resorts, but the Midway Plaisance was much as Cornell had first seen it.

In 1889, after Hyde Park Township had been absorbed into the city of Chicago, Trustee Frederick Gates reported to the committee trying to decide where to locate the University of Chicago that the Midway had some advantages--in particular, transportation. He pointed out that on the west side, the Cottage Grove Avenue "grip line" was a 45-minute ride into the Loop. On the east side, the Illinois Central depot was a 25-minute ride to the downtown depot and that 47 commuter trains ran each way daily. There were also two street railway lines running east/west on 61st Street. Another advantage was that it was a residential neighborhood for "the higher middle and aristocratic classes....where no manufacturing will ever be possible."

Gates in selling his plan said that the proposed location was on "a waterway Boulevard and pleasure grounds." But this seems to be an exaggeration. A novel published in 1894 by Clara Louise Burnham, Sweet Clover: A Romance of the White City, had a different view: "They had sped down Grand Boulevard, through Washington Park, and now entered the Midway Plaisance. What that name suggested to Chicagoans up to a short time ago was the loneliest, most rural drive of their park system....Grassy fields stretched away in level tranquil monotony in all directions."

Columbian Exposition of 1893

The next great event for the Midway was the decision to locate the Columbian Exposition in the underdeveloped parts of the South Park--the worldwide celebration of Columbus's transfer of "the torch of civilization to the New World" in 1492. One of the most successful and influential of world's fairs--though it didn't manage to open until 1893--it covered over 600 acres and attracted exhibits and people from all over the world. Olmsted returned to redesign his parks for the fair--designating the Midway Plaisance as the home for the "ethnography" exhibits. To the east of Stony Island Avenue was the overwhelming might and grandeur of the White City with all the Beaux Arts exhibit halls for important topics like Manufactures and Horticulture. Also in Jackson Park were the official state and national pavilions. To the west of Stony Island Avenue, on the Midway Plaisance, the original design of the ethnography exhibits was a march through Social Darwinism, starting with "primitive" tribal existence at Cottage Grove, moving through the "barbarisms" of the Orient and the "misguided" ancient history of the Old World to the heights of American forward-looking civilization in the White City.

The Fair organizers quickly conceded that this high-minded racism had better yield to money-making concessions and sideshows, so the Midway was turned over from a professor at Harvard to Sol Bloom, a protege of P. T. Barnum from San Francisco. It became a grand mix of fakes, hokum, and the genuinely educational. On one side of Stony Island was order. On the other was something far rowdier.

According to a souvenir book to the fair, the Midway concessions made over $4 million in 1893 dollars. The Street in Cairo was the most popular with 2,250,000 admissions. The Ferris Wheel, which as expensive as admission to the whole fair itself, had 1,500,000 admissions. Hagenbecks' animal side show had 2,000,000 admissions, with the German village, Old Vienna, and the Javanese Village popular attractions too. This was the backyard of the fair--covering only 80 of the 633 acres of the fair and it lasted only 6 months.

Throughout the walking tour, I've boxed the parts about the Columbian Exposition locations in orange.

After the Fair

In one short summer, the fair was over. In 1900, Olmsted's son returned to redesign the fairgrounds back into parks and created a new plan for its use--which included turning the level lands of the Midway into a broad canal. The streets would cross the canal on decorative stone bridges. Below is an artist's rendering from an 1894 book about the end of the fair.

At the same time, the firm of Olmsted and Olmsted designed the landscape of the university, beginning the close association of the park and the campus. Much of their plan for the quadrangles was implemented. However, their plan for the Midway was not. The panels were dug down below grade level, but the canal was never completed. In addition to the huge expense, they apparently ran into problems with the change of elevation--or rather the lack of it--between Washington Park and Lake Michigan. The sunken panels have remained muddy playing fields ever since, leading to the famous label of the old Big Ten champion teams of the university's football heyday--Monsters of the Midway. The Maroons' original team name was going to be the Goldenrods, since they too once dominated the Midway. Luckily the university settled for an abstraction instead.

Later Master Plans

In the 1920s, the University started to cross the Midway and build on the south side along 60th Street. Lorado Taft, sculptor in residence at the University, was located on the south side. He took up the idea of a canal. He planned an elaborate series of bridges organized symbolically around the concept of Time that would stretch from a statuary group representing the beginning of time on the east end of the Plaisance and ending with the Fountain of Time at the end of the Midway to the west. The canal would be lined in the side panels with the statues of great thinkers and creators, moving from ancient to modern times. One part of this grand plan was completed--the Fountain of Time--before the Depression eliminated any possibility of funding it.

The next great plan was developed in the 1950s during the great burst of urban renewal. Erno Saarinen, at work designing Woodward Court and the Law Quadrangle, envisioned the Plaisance as the new center of gravity for the university. As the center for the school, and in the spirit of the urban renewal going on in the neighborhood at the time, the streets of the Plaisance would become cul de sacs, sealing out through traffic. Instead of the current short-cut through the neighborhood that the Plaisance provides, he pictured an expressway running along the south border of the campus--from Lakeshore Drive to the Dan Ryan Expressway along 62nd Street.

And now in the new millennium, there is once more a plan afoot by the university and the Chicago Park District to create yet another master plan for the Midway.



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