The University of Chicago was a welcome addition to Hyde Park. In 1891, President William Rainey Harper and the University’s first trustees negotiated a site for the new University of Chicago along the edge of the Midway Plaisance extending several blocks towards the well-settled Hyde Park/Kenwood neighborhoods. Though influenced by majestic campuses such as Oxford and Cambridge, the University’s founders were intent upon creating a unique academic environment befitting the principles of progressive and rigorous scientific study also championed by the institution’s originators. The University of Chicago was one of the first universities with a pre-determined, cohesive plan for its architecture and it was to relate to the surrounding environment. The trustees of the University had a clear vision of an architectural layout that was in harmony with its environs. The system of quadrangles was a deliberate arrangement intended to both delineate the space of the academy from the outside world and to create an architectural complex that was harmonious with rather than obtrusive amidst its adjacent surroundings. The trustees deliberated over a suitable yet feasible architectural plan, ultimately deciding on Gothic edifices of Blue Bedford limestone. They considered Gothic to be a timeless style that would evoke a sense of indomitable religiosity and would generate a visually unified architectural schema but would also be able to embrace diverse architectural styles. Finding an architect who was able to represent their vision was the next challenging undertaking.
After communicating for several months with the renowned architect Henry Ives Cobb, the trustees decided upon Cobb's grand but sober architectural design. Since coming to Chicago in 1881 Cobb had received several significant commissions in the Chicago area including the Newberry Library, the Chicago Opera House and Lake Forest College and was well suited to his charge at the University. The University’s first building Cobb Hall (named for an unrelated financial donor Silas Cobb) was erected simultaneously with the early constructions of the Colombian Exposition in Jackson Park and the Midway in 1892. Cobb Hall was the template for later structures on campus. Internally it was a strictly functional building composed of small rooms for intimate study and originally contained a large lecture hall on the first floor. Externally it possessed the graceful and imposing Gothic facade duplicated in many later structures on campus. Soon after Cobb Hall was built, Gates-Blake and Goodspeed Halls (men’s dormitories at the time) were completed also under the direction of Henry Ives Cobb, followed by the women’s dorms Kelly, Foster and Beecher. This first phase of construction continued for the next nine years. Since the campus was cluttered with construction sites for the first decade after its conception, little attention was paid to the landscape of the University until the turn of the century.
Not surprisingly, the marsh ecosystem upon which the University was constructed proved to be a slight inconvenience in the early years as the first buildings were being erected. Thomas Wakefield Goodspeed in his History of the University of Chicago described how in the first year of the University's history, the southeast quarter and "the western side [were] flat, but dry and covered with young oaks... [and how] these two sides were separated by low ground which was a morass in the spring, being lowest just east of where Haskell later stood, and here there was standing water for much of the year." He continues, "there were a few boardwalks, but only a few... the campus was covered with piles of earth, and with brick stone, iron, lumber, every kind of building material..." Clearly the site remained very much in its ‘natural state’ as a somewhat troublesome marshland.
Goodspeed later remarked that the individual responsible for the initial care of the campus was a Trustee and Chair of the Buildings and Grounds Department, Judge Daniel Shorey. Judge Shorey was also the principle advocate for preserving the existing oaks on campus - oaks that in many cases predate the University. Shorey’s devotion to the campus ground is evident simply in the number of plantings for which he alone was responsible. In 1893, as the Chairman of the Committee on Buildings and Grounds, Judge Shorey ordered double rows of trees - acacia and catalpas - one on either side of the driveway south of the central quad supplying the funds for the purchase himself. In 1894 Shorey planted trees northwest of Kent Laboratory. Once again, in 1895 Shorey was authorized to plant trees in the northern part of the campus. His personal contribution was commendable. Accordingly, when Judge Shorey died it was acknowledged in his memorial service that the “grounds [were] under his care from the beginning. [And that h]is labor in beautifying the campus [had] been unwearied.”
Judge Shorey’s devotion to the black oaks on campus was exceedingly fortunate. Since black oaks are quite hardy and well adapted to the local climate and sandy soil conditions, their longevity and vigor allows them to be appreciated even today. May Theilgaard Watts a well-known naturalist, aficionado of the natural history of the Midwest and friend of the University’s botanical specialist Professor John Cowles, also praised Judge Shorey’s dedication to the preservation of the black oaks. In reference to the oaks, Watts mentioned, “they interrupted the [overall] landscape scheme for the campus,” but added “it was [nevertheless] decided that as each oak died it was to be replaced by an elm, to match the rest of the campus.” The effort to preserve the original arrangement of trees on campus attests to the founders’ desire to maintain a sense of continuity in the placement of trees on campus. The Committee on Buildings and Grounds ordered elms to be planted wherever oaks were once growing. However, because elms naturally prosper in more fertile soil, it was specified that for each tree, a hole 25 feet would be excavated and the sand replaced with “black earth from the Illinois prairie.” Interestingly, many of these elms were apparently imported from the east coast because New England elms were judged to be more aesthetically pleasing than the local variety.
May Theilgaard Watts, The University of Chicago Archives’ Trustees Minutes, The University of Chicago Archives, Jean Block’s The Uses of Gothic