Finding a history for a picture is not a linear process,” begins Susan O’Connor Davis, setting the stage for her talk on Hyde Park’s architectural history, based on her 2013 book Chicago’s Historic Hyde Park. On November 7, in the Augustana Lutheran Church of Hyde Park, about fifty middle-aged and elderly local residents occupy the sleek, dark wooden pews. The high ceiling’s beams radiate towards an unseen skylight in the front of the room, and the brick walls make the space feel at once cavernous and cozy, an artful setting for an architectural talk. Once the projector screen has been cued to the first slide, the audience shuffles around to accommodate everyone’s sight and hearing before the presentation begins.
Davis tells Hyde Park’s story through a series of aged pictures of beautiful houses interspersed with maps from different time periods. Starting with the tavern Nathan Watson built in 1835 on the 53rd Street lakefront, Davis’s presentation traces the ties that led her from one picture to another during her research, as she drew upon everything from genealogical records to magazine pictures. Sometimes, though, Davis says, “you aren’t looking to find anything. Sometimes it finds you.”
Many of the pictures serendipitously came to her attention while she was researching something else, or through tips from neighbors and friends, but the most compelling stories are the human ones behind the photos. Moving from one picture to the next, Davis builds a web of neighborhood lives, and the audience responds strongly to these narratives. In describing the Charles Hosmer Morse Residence on 48th Street, Davis shows a picture from Morse’s daughter’s wedding, and goes on to explain that the house was a wedding gift, but that when Morse’s daughter later died, her bereaved husband was so devastated he arranged for the house to be demolished with all of their possessions still inside of it.
Davis’s sentences feel like plot points in a mystery: loud gasps emanate from every audience member. Sighs of relief follow when we learn that the rest of the family rushed to save many of the precious possessions, but there are again sounds of dismay when Davis reveals that the storage room later burned, along with most of the objects.
The audience’s emotions are not reserved purely for the stories, though. The delicate trim on a 1939 building’s awning earned collective coos of appreciation. Davis demonstrates just as much emotional investment in these buildings, and is wistful as she expresses hope that the beautiful original work in St. Stephen’s Church on Blackstone Avenue would be preserved.
Davis says her favorite thing about giving talks is “the enthusiasm,” and it’s easy to see why. The event isn’t just a presentation—it’s an exchange. One woman explained that she had found an 1850 map showing a row of shops where her popcorn shop now stands, and another resident asked about the oldest structure in Hyde Park. Davis revealed that it is a simple house dating from 1858 located on Dorchester Avenue, currently hidden behind a parking lot; the audience breaks into excited chatter as people confer on which house it might be.
“People love this community, and they’re so inquisitive,” Davis says. It becomes evident that the entire room is a repository of knowledge and history, full of people eager to engage with both Davis and each other. The church is filled with an appreciation for modern Hyde Park’s ties to the past. Encapsulating this sentiment, Davis says, “Driving around the neighborhood, I see both the old and the new.”