By Lisa Napoles
Much of the blame for the failures of the American urban renewal era was placed on the Modernist architects who designed the redevelopment schemes. The Hyde Park A & B Urban Renewal Project designed by I.M. Pei and Harry Weese & Associates is an example of a redevelopment that has integrated into its surrounding neighborhood by responding to its historic context.
Image (left): Townhouses on 54th Street and Dorchester Avenue (1958), Photo: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf2-03944], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
Harry Mohr Weese (1915-1998) was born in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Weese grew up attending public schools and was exposed to a great deal of art and music by his parents. He demonstrated an early talent for drawing and as a Boy Scout, earned his first merit badge in architecture.
Weese studied architecture at MIT, where he drew inspiration from Le Corbusier’s application of modernist principles to architecture, urban planning, and industrial design; as well as from the work of Alvar Aalto and that of George Fred Keck, designer of “The House of Tomorrow” at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition.
Following his graduation from MIT in 1938, he won a year-long fellowship at Cranbrook Academy, where he studied with sculptor Harry Bertoia, ceramicist Maija Grotell, and shared a drafting table with Ralph Rapson.
During World War II he served as an engineer in the Navy. After the war, he returned to Chicago and worked for SOM for a year before establishing Harry Weese & Associates.
Outside of the Midwest, Weese is best-known for his design of the Washington, D.C. Metro, which opened in 1976. He retired from practice in 1992.
Image (right): Townhouses on 56th Street (1961), Photo: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf2-03955], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
Hyde Park began as a railroad suburb of Chicago. Following annexation by Chicago in 1893, Hyde Park attracted some of the city’s wealthiest residents before settling into middle-class stability for several decades afterward.
Since its establishment in 1891, the University of Chicago has profoundly impacted the Hyde Park neighborhood. The university played a pivotal role in the redevelopment of Hyde Park in the 1950s.
Beginning in the 1940s, the poverty, overcrowding, and building deterioration that had spread throughout the South Side began to encroach on Hyde Park. Neighborhood residents responded by forming the South East Chicago Commission (SECC).1
Through a donation to support operating expenses and the appointment of faculty to an advisory committee, the University of Chicago officially joined the SECC to combat the blight that had begun drawing closer to the campus. Chancellor Lawrence A. Kimpton said at the time, “We are fighting for our lives – we simply cannot operate in a slum area.”2
Image (left): University Apartments from 55th Street and Lake Park Avenue (1961), Photo: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf2-03954], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
In 1953, the SECC initiated a study to identify the most deteriorated sections of the neighborhood and produce a redevelopment proposal. Harry Weese was hired as consulting architect and engineer. Consulting building inspection records, Weese mapped a boundary surrounding the most severely dilapidated properties that could potentially be classified as “blighted” under the Federal Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 and qualify for federal assistance for redevelopment.3
By selecting the most deteriorated properties in the neighborhood and excluding viable buildings, Weese created an irregularly-shaped map divided into two zones. The larger of the two, located at East 55th Street and Lake Park Avenue was labeled “Hyde Park A” and the smaller area that ran along East 54th Street, “Hyde Park B.”4
Based on this study, the SECC published a report in 1954 entitled South East Chicago Renewal Project No.1. It included Weese’s clearance maps, a site plan for the proposed redevelopment area, and sketches for housing and a shopping center.
Where other urban renewal projects employed a “blank slate” strategy, Weese’s scheme more closely resembles redevelopment by excision, combining selective demolition, rehabilitation of distressed properties, and retention of viable structures.
In 1956, Federal funding was awarded for the project and demolition began. Developers were invited to submit proposals that complied with the guidelines of the 1954 SECC report.
The New York firm of Webb & Knapp was selected as the developer for the project. The plan created by the firm’s chief architect, I.M. Pei, had one significant deviation from the SECC plan, to create an island in the middle of 55th Street for the placement of two ten-story apartment buildings.
Upon receiving the commission, Pei retained fellow MIT alum Harry Weese as associate architect. Pei and Weese collaborated throughout the planning and design process and shared credit for the project as a whole.
Project documents attribute the ten-story University Apartments to Pei as well as the two-story units adjacent to the north on 55th Street. Weese is credited with the first two-story townhouses in Hyde Park B, the courtyard townhouse complex in Hyde Park A, and the shopping center. Pei and Weese’s office co-designed the three-story townhouses. Architectural Record reported that it was the largest urban renewal project in the nation, and third only in total size to Lincoln Center in New York and Eastwick in Philadelphia.5
The development employs features common to urban renewal projects that sought to counter suburban flight by creating a suburb-like environment for residents: lower density, greater light and space, private parking, convenient shopping, and an overall sense of safety. Weese, in his often-blunt fashion, rejected the high-rise model favored by many urban-renewal architects, saying that:
“Architecture is most at home below the trees within walking distance of the earth. When lonely above the clouds, it sways inclining to the wind according to its frequency, ghostly with the others, eerie within itself, its myriad levels reached by vertical coffins, travelling strangers in empty shafts, the most unhuman (sic) experience.”6
Image (right): Harper Court Townhouses (ca. 1961), Photo: Matt Crawford, 2013
Instead, Weese drew upon English Georgian architecture in his preference for the townhouse as a residential type, one which balanced economy of space with residents’ privacy. Also owing to European precedent, Pei and Weese, where possible, sited townhouses around shared courtyards.
Weese would continue to experiment with townhouse design in later projects in the Old Town neighborhood and at the Wolf Point riverfront. The townhouses in Hyde Park were the first constructed in Chicago in nearly fifty years, necessitating a revision to Illinois property law.
The first completed residences were a row of fifteen Weese-designed townhouses on East 54th Street in Hyde Park B. These two-story designs featured an open floor plan on the first level, a modern kitchen, and two, three, or four bedrooms on the second floor. The materials and exterior details, which included a limestone grille inset with tall, narrow windows, a limestone cornice, and an iron balconette, were first used for a house Weese designed in 1957 in Hyde Park.
Thirty-four townhouses with three different floor plans were completed in August 1962 in Hyde Park A, between South Blackstone and Dorchester Avenues, and East 54th Place and Rochdale Place. Each unit has a small front and back yard, and the rows of townhouses form a square enclosing a central courtyard.
The two- and three-story townhouses that Pei and Weese co-designed were built in Hyde Park A, with two two-story plans and two three-story plans. Having never previously designed townhouses before working on the Hyde Park redevelopment, Pei incorporated variations of Weese’s townhouse design in the subsequent Society Hill and Bingham Court urban renewal projects in Philadelphia.
All townhouses were constructed of buff-colored brick with limestone trim and iron balconies. Each row of townhouses is of a single type, identical in composition. The overall effect is of a unified ensemble of buildings that exhibit refined, cohesive Modernist design executed in contextual Midwestern materials.
For the apartment towers, Pei’s office developed a load-bearing concrete exterior wall system. The wall produces a sculptural lattice effect magnified by the dramatic proportions of the towers.
Weese’s shopping center featured a free-standing thin-shell concrete arcade roof and a central courtyard with fountains and benches where residents could congregate with their neighbors.
Mid-century residential architecture is most often associated with suburban developments which draw upon a historic context of expansion, optimism, and stability. The narrative of urban renewal, in contrast, is one of racial and class displacement and demolition of historic neighborhoods.
Attracting much publicity as one of the first federally-funded urban renewal projects in the United States as well as one of Chicago’s first neighborhood redevelopments, Hyde Park A & B drew national and international commentary. Jane Jacobs criticized the plan in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, saying “The plan designates and removes these chunks of blight and replaces them with chunks of Radiant Garden City designed, as usual, to minimize use of the streets.”7
Image (left): Courtyard Townhouses, 54th Place and Dorchester Avenue (1962), Photo: Matt Crawford, 2013
James Marston Fitch said, “The row houses at Hyde Park are organized into patterns as formal as an eighteenth-century minuet. This approach yields scraps of land that, for no very convincing reasons, are labeled as ‘playgrounds’ and ‘commons.’”8
Architectural historian Carl Condit approved of the development, however, calling it, “the largest, most thoroughly organized, and most effectively controlled at the local level among similar programs in the United States.”9
Oscar Newman described the project in his landmark work Defensible Space:
“The [townhouse] units are disposed on their site in a manner similar to the patterns of an older neighboring single-family residential development. They have been provided with a formal entry area, immediately off the sidewalk, defined by low walls, a paved walk, and a set of stairs which leads a half-flight up to the ground-floor level. These devices serve to designate very clearly the ten feet in front of the dwelling, and to put this area under the zone of influence of its occupants. Activities on the street are easily monitored from the dwelling units proper and from passing vehicles.”10
In the process of clearing land for Hyde Park A & B, many commercial structures, especially those along 55th Street, were demolished for housing. While some businesses did relocate to the new shopping plaza, most did not. In demolishing blighted apartments and rooming houses and replacing them with single-family residences, the lower-income residents of Hyde Park were dispersed to other neighborhoods.
Today, Hyde Park A & B retains excellent physical integrity. Owing to its simplicity of design and the continuing economic stability of the area, the buildings maintain their overall character as at the time of construction.
The plan of Hyde Park A & B is completely intact, with no original buildings having been demolished. However, the Hyde Park Shopping Center was subject to extensive exterior alterations during the 1990s that have rendered the complex nearly unrecognizable.
Image (right): University Apartments (ca. 1961), Photo: Matt Crawford, 2013
In planning Hyde Park A & B, Weese sought to integrate redevelopment within a historic neighborhood. Using a combined strategy of selective demolition, rehabilitation of distressed properties, and retention of viable structures, Hyde Park A & B minimized the destruction of historic fabric and displacement of residents. It starkly contrasts with other Chicago redevelopments such as Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores, which draw residents into high-rises separated from the street by vast lawns, as well as Sandburg Village and Dearborn Park, neither of which exhibit the refined Modernist aesthetic of Hyde Park A & B and by retreating behind brick walls, demonstrate the worst fears of the urban renewal era.
Weese’s use of brick, limestone, and iron in two- and three-story residences reflects the materials and building types that characterize Hyde Park. This contextualist approach to Modernism was central to Weese’s philosophy, one which put him at odds with his Miesian contemporaries:
“Escapists would have us look at architecture as an isolated work of art cropped from context. Their individual set-pieces are amusing but when raised to full scale not the stuff from which permanent environment is made.”11
Hyde Park A & B is exceptional among urban renewal projects for pioneering the revival of the townhouse, for the sensitivity demonstrated by the clearance of only the most blighted areas, for its integration within its historic residential context, and for a plan that fostered community without isolating residents from the surrounding neighborhood.
“Urban life must be maintained, improved, and made attractive again. But this cannot happen if each generation knocks everything down and starts over. Nor can we run away from one mess to create another in a synthetic new town. We can build the metropolitan area only by fitting into a large, idealized concept the efforts of many – all devoted to preserving, reworking, renewing, and adding for each generation the best it can offer toward a living continuity on the chosen ground. This requires a philosophy, a plan, a discipline.”12
-Harry Weese, 1958
1Bruegmann, Robert and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, 2010. The Architecture of Harry Weese. New York: Norton, 114-115.
2“Rapid Progress in Hyde Park-Kenwood.” Architectural Record (Nov. 1960): 140.
3Bruegmann, Robert and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, 2010. The Architecture of Harry Weese. New York: Norton, 114-115.
4Bruegmann, Robert and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, 2010. The Architecture of Harry Weese. New York: Norton, 114-115.
5“Rapid Progress in Hyde Park-Kenwood.” Architectural Record (Nov. 1960): 140.
6Weese, Harry. 1979. “A Word About Architecture.” Process: Architecture 11: 6.
7Jacobs, Jane, 1992. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage, 45.
8Fitch, James Marston. 1963. “Housing in New York, Washington, Chicago, and Philadelphia.” Architectural Review 134: 193-200.
9Condit, Carl W. 1974. Chicago, 1930-70: Building, Planning, and Urban Technology Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 208.
10Newman, Oscar, 1973. Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 146.
11Weese, Harry. 1979. “A Word About Architecture.” Process: Architecture 11: 7.
12Weese, Harry. 1958. “Housing Patterns and What Makes Them.” Architectural Record July 1958:172.