Natural History of Site

University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

The University of Chicago is set in a region that possesses a distinctive natural history. Early descriptions of the site reveal how inhospitable the terrain was to initial settlement. Owing to its proximity to Lake Michigan, the University is located on what is known as a lakefront marsh ecosystem. This particular type of ecosystem is characterized by infertile soil - composed of silt and sand deposited by receding glaciers and the repeated flooding of Lake Michigan. Because the surface soil of the area was so lacking in nutrients, it could sustain only a limited variety of plant life. Prior to the University’s construction, the landscape was scattered with hardy shrubbery, short scrub oaks and large tracts of swampland. Consequently, the area of the University and its periphery were actually better suited to suburban settlement than agrarian communities. The settlement of the region was modest before the middle of the nineteenth century. Unlike the fertile plains of more inland regions of Illinois, Hyde Park remained sparsely populated until Chicago’s growing population began to search for the tranquility of suburban life. Even today the often saturated and sterile soils remain a challenge on the campus despite efforts to tame the natural ecosystem with fertile fill and drainage systems.