Midway Plaisance Walking Tour

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

Continue from Ingleside Avenue east to Woodlawn

Social Service Administration Building

School of Social Service Administration

Mies van der Rohe


Most of the "South Campus" is a single line of widely spaced relatively modern buildings set away from the street. There is a new Master Plan for the university that includes creating more of an identity for the South Campus and building along 61st Street to form a series of quadrangles rather than a single line.

The first of these buildings is the SSA building, The school was founded in 1894 and was originally associated with Jane Addams and the other settlement work before it merged into the university. It's part of the original reputation of the university as being engaged with the life of the city, in spite of the walled quadrangles.

The building is essentially two stories, with one of the stories mostly underground. The black steel and glass fits relatively unobtrusively onto the corner of campus. Inside there's a large lobby and an open plan, though I guess many don't like having offices in the basement.

I took a tour of the modern buildings on campus once sponsored by the Hyde Park Historical Society. The docent pointed out that the verticals in the building are decorative and not supporting. They also said that there were big houses on these lots before SSA was built.


On the corner to the west of SSA on 60th Street once stood a fraternity house at 923 East 60th Street, pictured here in 1913.

It was here that the Dahomey Village sat during the fair. It too had little to do with the money-making concessions and more to do with the original "ethnography" plan. It seemed to exist for no other purpose that to see how people in Dahomey live. There were no restaurants, no rides, no real side shows. They lived on the Midway in hollow square huts with rough mud walls thatched with bark. One guidebook noted that they slept on the ground in coarse blankets and ate "al fresco." "Here is the strangest sight among all the spectacular wonders of the Plaisance. At one end are grouped the musicians all of them Dahomeans, all lean and lank, and all supremely hideous. They wear nose and ear rings of metal and as little clothing as decency permits, their dark, shining bodies showing the scars of many a hard fought battle. . . . Occasionally there is a posturing dance, all contortion. It is in truth a barbaric spectacle, and the more so as many of the performers are women, the amazons of western Africa."

An interesting analysis of the Midway and the role of ethnography can be found in James Gilbert's Perfect Cities: Chicago's Utopias of 1893.


Burton-Judson Dormitory

Burton-Judson Dormitory

Bulley and Andrews


This was originally named the Men's Residence Halls in 1931 but were later renamed for the second and third presidents of the university. The building features 16" by 16" rafters and over 1,200 doors and stone archways. This was to be the first step in moving the university to the south side of the Midway, which would become the center of the campus. But with the Depression, there were no funds for expansion, so BJ reigned over 60th Street in isolation. The students were cut off from campus by the Midway, but they gravitated instead south to 61st Street where there was a street line and 63rd Street where there was a commercial row under the El, particularly to the restaurants and soda fountains. It wasn't until the 1960s that other university buildings joined it along 60th. As 63rd Street fell into decay, it became less attractive for the students to head further south, until finally the entire street was torn down.

The University has plans for a new residence and dining hall to replace the Shoreland Hotel. It will be built at 61st and Ellis.

All the way to Greenwood Avenue during the fair, there was Old Vienna--one of the most popular and lucrative of the concessions. It was walled with gates. It had a market place, rathouse, church with services, and 30 houses and stores. A beer garden covered three sides of a square. The daily concerts by the Emperor's Band were a hit.

There was one harbinger of things to come that was buried here where people were more interested in the beer. It was here that Edward Muybridge's magic lantern exhibition--projecting his series of stills of galloping horses--offered motion pictures to the visitors.



Laird Bell Law Quadrangle

Laird Bell Law Quadrangle

Eero Saarinen


This complex is most noted for the large library--the building with the glass walls--and the large auditorium building--the octagonal concrete bunker. Saarinen said that he wanted to emphasize the two essentials for the study of the law--the spoken and the written word. Of course, he also said that his style here was "neogothic." Wright referred to Robie House as "horizontal Gothic" so obviously Gothic means something different to architects than it does to me!

When he was designing the Law Quadrangle, Saarinen also drew up a master plan for the Midway that called for all the east/west streets to be turned into cul de sacs.

The sculpture in the fountain is by Antoine Pevsner, a Russian constructivist who lived in Paris. It's called "Construction in Space in the Third and Fourth Dimension" because it is intended to be seen from all sides including above from the law library. The law school garden was designed for the poor wet soil and full sun of the original marsh of the Midway. Early accounts of Hyde Park talk of spring beauties, prairie flowers, and lady slippers. I'd like to see a garden that included them!

The Law School itself was founded in 1902 and had a building on the quadrangles that was loosely patterned after King's College Chapel at Cambridge (now called Stuart Hall). From the beginning it admitted women when few other law schools would do so. It was at this location in the 1950s that prefabs were built for the influx of returning veterans making use of the GI bill.

The University plans to expand the Law School to the south.

During the fair, an ice railway ran between Greenwood and University Avenues. Behind it was a cluster of smaller exhibits. One of them was a Model Eiffel Tower that was 20 feet tall with little working elevators and little electric lights--an odd homage to the Paris Fair that they regarded as their rivals.Next to it was a model of St. Peter's inside a shed. It was a 1/60th scale.model that had been made in the 18th century.

This picture shows the enclosed track of the Ice Railway, which was basically a a tobaggan slide.


Skating Rink

Skating Rink

Nagel Hartray Danker Kagan McKay


The skating rink is part of the new Master Plan for the Midway, to attract more than the soccer, football, and rugby players that had always found their way to the sunken panels. The rink hosts movies and other events in the summer.

As part of the new plan, there will be a Winter Garden on the south panel of the Midway to balance the gardens in the north panels. That's in the 2008 plan.

An exciting discovery during the construction was the remains of the timbers and concrete for the foundation for the Ferris Wheel--the main symbol of the fair.


The Paris world's fair had had the Eiffel Tower and the Columbian Exposition organizers wanted some modern mechanical marvel to rival it as a symbol of the fair. George W. Ferris developed his idea into the first Ferris Wheel ever built. There was lots of hesitation in letting him build it because the fair organizers were scared that it would destroy itself from the tremendous forces at work--and so delayed so long that the Wheel wasn't ready until June 20, 1893. Even with the late start, it was the hit of the Fair.

It was 264 feet tall, had 36 cars, which held 40 t0 60 people each. A passenger climbed a broad staircase and walked through a door into a room with plate glass windows and rows of revolving chairs. Each car was 27-feet long, 13 feet wide, and 9 feet high. Each weighed 13 tons. The full rotation lasted 20 minutes and a single fare got you two rotations. Each compartment had a conductor who would point out the sights. At the top, they could look at the city and even the dim shadow of the opposite shore of the lake 50 miles away. At the top, they were at 250 feet--level with the summit of the dome of the Administration building. A great time to ride was at night when the fair was ablaze with electric lights--"like the bow of scientific promise set athwart the blackness of the night." Several couples were married when going around on the Wheel.

Friend Williams liked it lit up, but "our trip around it was taken one delightful afternoon. A better idea of its loftiness is given, and you also get a good view of things far and near. The Wheel is the most satisfactory thing on the Midway."(3)

For a lot more on the Ferris Wheel, see the articles at the Hyde Park Historical Society web site.

The wheel rotated on a three-foot thick, 45 -foot long axle, which was the largest single piece of forged steel in the world

Clara Louise Burnham had an account in Sweet Clover (1894):

"The movement of her fellow passengers had brought her to the base of the wheel. Those who have stood in that position know the effect of looking straight up. Mildred already feeling small, experienced a painful physical sense of being overwhelmed. The monster had paused for its cars to be filled and she shrank from the prospect before her of unprecedented sensations. If she allowed herself to be shut up in that glass cab, it meant the two flights of 250 feet skyward must be taken before she could regain her liberty."

Once in it (and finding her love interest was in her cab), she cheered up: "Their attention was fully occupied with the panoramic view. The crowd of sightseers in the Plaisance became a congregation of umbrellas and parasols, ever lessening in size, and whitened in patches where a number of faces were upturned at once to behold the gyration of the wheel. The strange colors and shapes in architecture brought from many lands stood in startling conjunction on either hand."


Bridle Path

Along the line of the south panel of the Midway you might notice a wide path. Though now it just looks bulldozed through the grass, it was once a cinder bridle path. I had lived in Hyde Park awhile before I discovered that it was a bridle path--I was walking along it when suddenly a whole troop of mounted police were riding toward me in formation. There are still some stables around on the south side, but this is mostly used by joggers these days. It will be eliminated when they build the winter gardens.

One of the good side effects of the Age of Coal was that the residual cinders made great path material--soft under foot and prevented erosion while staying compact and dry. The cinder lasted until quite recently. With no use of coal, however, the paths through Jackson Park and here have been deteriorating. There are still some Horse Crossing signs up though.

The trees lining the parkway have had a tough time. In the 1970s, the huge elms that once lined the Midway succumbed one by one to Dutch Elm disease until the Midway was stripped bare. I'd watched the elms all die in upstate New York before arriving in Hyde Park, only to watch them collapse and die here too. Elms were uniquely beautiful lining streets since the vase shape allowed the branch to intertwine into great arches across the streets. It's now been replanted with lindens, honey locusts, red maples, and hackberries. The small trees lining the paths that cut across are ornamental crabs.

As you walk along, you might notice gaps in the line of trees. Some 80 trees were ripped out in the summer of 2003 during a brutal wind storm that devastated Washington and Jackson Parks.


American Bar Foundation Building

This building was originally the American Bar Foundation Building, as the seal on the east wing says. The ABA decided to move to a new building downtown and various organizations such as the National Opinoin Research Center and the Harris School of Public Policy have taken it over. There is an inscription running along the front about the ways that the law serves society.

As part of the expansion of the South Campus, the Harris School will also push to 61st Street by 2020.

West of Woodlawn was the location for the Moorish Palace, one of Sol Bloom's Oriental fantasies. It had a Palm Garden, a Magic Maze, a Room of a 1000 Reflections, and a Wax Museum that included such Moorish ethnographic artifacts as the beheading of Marie Antoinette and the assasination of Lincoln. Friend Williams liked it much better than the Turkish Village--"One part was devoted to illusions and a person had to keep his wits about him or he would go smack up against the cause of his discomfiture, the large mirrors which lined the place."(3) A three sided room lined with mirrors produced hundreds of images from one person "and if you waved your hat, all these illusive people did likewise, thus producing an enormous cheer."

It was next to the Turkish village--where fair visitors could buy rugs, tiles, bronzes, swords, and curios or just get some ices in the restaurant. This was run by Robert Levy for the firm of Saadullah, Suhami, and Company. The refreshment stand was particularly popular in the summer because it sold lemonade and sherbets. The cafe sold mocha coffee. The exhibit included Cleopatra's needle, and another column representing the serpentine columnn at Delphi.

But the main attraction was a small white-bearded man who had guided Mark Twain on his tour made famous in Innocents Abroad. He had been a notoriously bad guide for Twain but was a comforting bit of familiar "authenticity" for the American public.

The Turkish Village had a miniature mosque with a gilded dome 60 feet high and a minaret. The fair claimed that it was the first consecrated mosque outside the Mohammedan world. The Muezzin summoned the faithful to prayers five times a day. At the consecration ceremonies 3,000 men came--however, many of them were actually Shriners from the Medina Temple in Chicago, a fraternal organization that luckily wore fezes and could pass for Turks.

Midway Tour Introduction

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