A walk through Kenwood

December 10, 2020 • 1:15 pm

My thrice-weekly constitutional used to me down along by Lake Michigan, but that got boring. Recently, then, I’ve been heading up to Kenwood, a “community area”  that goes from 43rd street to 51st Street (Chicago streets are numbered consecutively starting from downtown and going south). Much of the southern part of Kenwood, from 47th Street to 51st Street, was occupied in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by rich titans and moguls: the Swifts, the Armors, and the executives of Sears-Roebuck.

This is also the area in which Bobby Franks was kidnapped by Leopold and Loeb, and where much of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son is set. The southern moiety is included within the Hyde Park-Kenwood Historic District. Some of the houses in Kenwood were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, though early in his career.

And of course this is where Obama lived when he was in Chicago—after he made his nut with his first book. The other day I put up a picture of his house, mostly blocked off by the Secret Service, though he no longer lives here.  The whole surrounding area is full of huge brick mansions, and it’s a lovely walk, though no U of C professor could ever afford to live here unless they win a Nobel Prize.

Here are a few houses and miscellaneous photos from Tuesday’s ramblings. I’ll identify them when I can. Click the photos to enlarge them.

Below is Wright’s 1896 Isidore Heller House. Earlier in his career, he hadn’t yet adopted the sweeping horizontality of, say, the Robie House (1909-1910), which I pass on my way to work every day. The Heller house is more vertical and includes columns and classical sculpture on the top floor.  It was on the market for a long time in the last decade, and I heard it had structural problems and leaks, which plagues most of Wright’s houses here. But it’s still a lovely building, and the “For Sale” sign is gone.

Closeup of the sculptures on top. The Frank Lloyd Trust says this:

Conforming to the irregular shape of the lot, the plan is arranged along a horizontal axis that extends back from the building’s street façade. The horizontal emphasis of the design is countered by the vertical form of the building which incorporates a substantial third floor playroom and servants’ rooms. The arcaded exterior of the third floor displays a frieze of classically-garbed maidens adapted from Wright’s cover design for the Eve of St. Agnes, published by his friend and client William Winslow in 1896. The sculpture was executed by Wright’s frequent collaborator, Richard Bock, who designed integral sculptural elements for several of Wright’s most important Prairie buildings, including the Dana and Martin houses, and the Larkin Administration building.

Below is the former home of Muhammad Ali, who lived in Kenwood for a while.  One site about the historic area says this:

In order to be closer to his Nation of Islam mentor, Muhammed Ali bought the brick mansion at 4944 S. Woodlawn, where he lived for several years in the 70s.

The Tudor-style mansion to the left was Ali’s:

Ali’s mentor was Elijah Muhammad, who lived about two blocks from Ali’s house. Muhammad’s house is shown below, and below that, right across the street, are houses for his associates. As the site above notes:

At the intersection of 49th and Woodlawn, Egyptian architect M. Momen designed five North-African style mansions for Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad and his children and staff.

I used to be scared to walk by this house, as a group of men from the Fruit of Islam, the security wing of the Nation of Islam, would be standing on the sidewalk, guarding the house in suits and sunglasses, arms folded and looking very daunting. That look, of course was part of the job—a dressed-up version of the intimidating Black Panthers look. I’m not sure if Farrakhan lives here now, but it’s surely still owned by the Black Muslims, for one can sometimes see their members congregating in the driveway behind the house.

The four ancillary Nation of Islam homes across the street:

More fancy mansions nearby:

This modern house, fronted by a sculpture that looks like a jack, sticks out like a sore thumb. I’m not a fan.

Years ago, when I took an architecture tour of the area, I was told by the guide that this garage/apartment was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It sure looks like it (note the resemblance to the Heller House):

Other houses in the area:

Two adjoining houses, somewhat in disrepair:

These wealthy homeowners have covered all the bases save for being anti-capitalist! Is this virtue signaling or “starting a conversation”?

I think the “Science is real” slogan really means, “the findings of science are real.”  And no, love doesn’t always win, though one wishes it did!

And I can never forego a selfie when I see a traffic mirror:

34 thoughts on “A walk through Kenwood

  1. Interesting area of Chicago. Most of those old mansions have probably been redone inside several times. I don’t think I want to know the price or the taxes. So many are three stories, almost impossible to heat and air condition. Also, where are the garages?

  2. In front of our house, we have:
    The stars and stripes flying (always)
    The rainbow flag flying (since about 20-Nov-2016, continously)
    A BLM sign
    A sign thanking our first responders, medical workers, and essential workers.


      1. I had a copacetic contractor (small maintenance job) come into our house this summer and he said, “I like your flags. You support our country, and everyone who lives in it!”

  3. Ali’s mentor was Elijah Muhammad, who lived about two blocks from Ali’s house.

    Ali’s original mentor in the Nation of Islam was Malcolm X. It happened in Miami, before the first heavyweight championship bout against Sonny Liston, during the time Ali (then Cassius Clay) was training at the (now defunct) 5th Street Gym on Miami Beach owned by Chris Dundee, brother of Ali’s longtime trainer, Angelo Dundee.

    When Malcolm split with the NoI, Ali elected to stick by Elijah Muhammad, whose son, Herbert, later became Ali’s business manager.

  4. I passed that same self-congratulatory sign the other day. Boy, do those folks who put up those signs annoy me, even though I’m in agreement with most of what’s on them. Now I think of it, one should think hard before putting up any sign at all. I don’t think signs change things, at least for the better, anyway.

    1. “I don’t think signs change things, at least for the better, anyway.”

      The flags and signs we have in front of our house have sparked conversations (and for the better).

      We’ve had many ladies in comfortable shoes from our neighborhood stop by and say hello and that they appreciate our rainbow flag. (And sometimes they say, “So … are you …?” “Nope, we just want to show our support.”)

      We had a high school girl stop by and leave us a heartfelt letter (to which we replied with a long letter) talking about how it felt good to her (a young girl who is attracted to other girls/women) to feel supported by our display of the flag.

      I have seen more and more signs, flags, etc. in our (rather staid, suburban) neighborhood since we started flying the rainbow flag. I think people think, if they can do it, I can do it.

      We discussed the risks (and there are risks; we live across the street from the Minnesota 6th Congressional district, infamous for sending Michele Bachmann to the US Congress repeatedly). But I said: We’ll take those risks. In the end, nothing has happened.

      I call it: Spinning the world in the right direction. (Like spinning the prayer wheels in Nepal.) If everyone just puts their hand to the wheel and pushes, just a little bit.



  5. About forty years ago, a gay couple I knew were trying to restore a house near downtown Detroit; I believe it was on Alfred St. I didn’t have much hope they would succeed, but it looks like they or someone else did. I think it was 79 Alfred; restored and apparently now law offices. I remember two things about the house: the whole top floor was a ballroom, and in the library, where there weren’t bookshelves, the walls were covered with tooled elephant hide.

  6. Love DOES always win! All you need is love. Love is all you need. Love…and oxygen. All you need is love and oxygen. And water and food. All you need is love, oxygen, water, and food. And reasonable shelter from the elements. All you need is love and…all…amongst the things you need are: love, oxygen, food, water, reasonable…

    I’ll come in again.

  7. That’s an interesting collection of buildings. The Lloyd house of 1896 is very different from, say, the Arts & Crafts buildings in the UK, for instance Standen, dating from 1892-4: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standen

    Each to their own. I have to say, however, that I find all those Nation of Islam houses absolutely hideous.

    1. One of the things that just amazed me in the UK (last time I was there, 2015) was the incredible number of stately homes there were still around in the UK. Wow, what a treasure trove!

  8. I would highly recommend a novel from the sixties, depicting the crazy goings on at one of these Kenwood mansions in counterpoint with a sweet love story between two U of C students: “The Pursuit of Happiness”, by Thomas Rogers. I seem to remember something about a cannon being fired from a turret. I loved walking through these neighborhoods as a student myself, though the craziness that transpired inside these noble facades mostly had to be imagined.

  9. My Nordic taste is spare, so of course I loved the modern house and was no fan of any of the others.

    My constitutionals – under the pandemic – are bike tours.

  10. At Christmas in 1972, I was planning to leave Chicago for a couple of days, and a friend from work kindly offered to take care of my roommate’s (a student, she had already gone home) and my pet guinea pigs. Someone must have given us a ride to the friend’s house, as the pigs’ cage was pretty large. Even though the house was not too far away, it was in a part of Hyde Park I’d never seen, and was enormous, absolutely cavernous, lived in by a bunch of young roommates, it seemed. My friend said Elijah Muhammad lived nearby. I never saw the house well, as it was evening both times I was there, but have often wondered if the guinea pigs got to spend the weekend in the Obamas’ house. Certainly they were at someone’s mansion in Kenwood.

  11. Wow, that is some extraordinarily delicate carving in the frieze. Assume it’s glazed terra-cotta vs. individually-carved limestone panels, but maybe they used some sort of 3D pantograph to produce duplications? I’d be interested to know what the stonecarving technology was like back then.

    Otherwise, flat roofs always ask for problems, which is why I like shed roofs where a peak is not required. And I like their look.

    But of all the houses you posted, I’ll take the shingle-style at the corner. It has a nice porch on the first floor and I like porches. It also has what looks like a nice little 3rd fl personal porch where that arch is, and I like those, too. And I like towers, and it has two. Not a fan of the gable connection to the cone of the front one, but suspect that that may have been added later to cure leaks where the cone intersected that pitched roof. Those intersections are prone to leaks, especially when snow piles up in the saddle. I know – I have a pair of such cones.

    For nice historic Chicago architecture with a connection to racial justice and scientific achievement, while I’ve never seen this one in person, if you’re ever up in Oak Park I’d like to see more pix of black chemist Percy Lavon Julian’s home which survived being firebombed after he moved in and which at times he guarded by sitting up in a tree with a shotgun. One pic of it here along with a biographical summary. He was famous for much more than the trials he endured with his home.

    1. I agree on all of your points (except the possession of turrets, I have none!)

      Seems like the best solution with the turrets is to put the turret/tower roof well above the other roof line. You still have the roof-tower connection but tall flashing should serve there.

  12. I enjoyed the walking tour. I’ve only visited Chicago once, and that only downtown, but you’ve got some stuff there it seems. I’ll have to send you a few shots of Chelsea, Manhattan. We’ve got stuff. Lotsa stuff.
    Your hair is looking a little shaggy these days again, professor.

    I haven’t cut mine since February and since I’m bald on top it isn’t a good look. I’m verging on mullet. Fedora to the rescue!

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