Settlement / Landscape History Prior to University Construction

The mid-nineteenth century inaugurated the deliberate development of Chicago’s southern region. Paul Cornell, a prosperous Chicago resident, launched his grand plan to make the area an attractive weekend resort and suburban village beyond the commotion of the growing metropolis by promoting real estate development in what was then a distant southern region of Chicago. Cornell was also responsible for designating the area Hyde Park after London and New York’s townships of the same name. To encourage traffic flows to the area Cornell made an arrangement with the administrators of the Illinois Central Railroad providing them with land on the condition that they include a stop in Hyde Park on their normal run. This was also the first time in the history of the Hyde Park area that there was a concerted effort to refine the surrounding landscape. Because Cornell was an active and influential member of Chicago’s South Parks Commission, he was able to persuade the Commission to hire the celebrated landscape architecture firm of Olmsted, Vaux and Co. This decision indelibly transformed the ecological and topological character of the University’s site.

Frederick Law Olmsted came in the early part of the 1871 to survey the region and devise a plan to beautify this burgeoning suburban district with an ambitious 1,055 acre park system. Olmsted, one of the preeminent landscape architects of the late nineteenth century, was widely acclaimed for his design of Central Park in Manhattan but was also responsible for other urban park designs such as those of Albany and Buffalo, NY, the Emerald Necklace in Boston and the grounds of the Capitol building in Washington. Olmsted’s project for Chicago’s South side included a dual park system - Jackson Park and Washington Park - linked by a long promenade for leisurely strolls along what is today known as the Midway Plaisance.  F. L. Olmsted has been rightfully praised for his outstanding ability to accentuate and preserve the natural charm of a landscape. In his landscape designs, Olmsted was able to combine utility and decorative concerns with laudable finesse. The designs Olmsted executed were clearly rooted in the English Park tradition, yet his handling of design elements such as waterways, walkways or plant life was marked by a unique aesthetic and practical sensibility. These qualities of Olmsted’s work are unmistakable in the layout of Chicago’s Washington and Jackson Parks.

F. L. Olmsted’s parks plan concentrated on accenting the Lake Michigan’s intrinsic beauty. Olmsted wanted to stress the natural visual motif of the lake by creating a continuous body of water from the shore all the way to Washington Park. A significant part of Olmsted’s Midway Plaisance plan would have transformed the stretch of land between Jackson and Washington Parks into "a magnificent chain of lakes" thereby allowing boat travel between the two parks. The South Parks Commission records specify that the lakes would "take the form of basins about 1300 ft. long and 100 foot wide, connected by straits 40 foot wide at street intersections, at which point they were to be covered with bridges of artistic design." However, after the great Chicago fire of 1871, sufficient public funds were unavailable to realize Olmsted’s vision. The South Parks plan had to be deferred until the World’s Colombian Exposition when Olmsted and Vaux once again took charge of the Park landscaping in collaboration with the local architectural firm of Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root. Unfortunately, the Midway waterway was never realized.

Nevertheless, tree planting continued through 1877 along the Midway. In accord with Olmsted's design, Cornell began to renovate the public lands by installing a five-acre nursery and improving the network of roads within Hyde Park. Initiatives to grade and seed the terrain along the Midway from Cottage Grove to Stony Island by the Illinois Central Railroad persisted and elms from the park nursery were also transplanted. During the winter of 1877 “the planting space between 59th and 63rd street for the 1200 square feet east of Cottage Grove Avenue was prepared and, in the spring, surfaced and sodden down. 1000 miscellaneous trees from the old nursery were planted in this space. The oak grove east of this improvement had been cleared of all underbrush, the grass sown and rustic seats [set up].” The repossession of Jackson Park and the Midway by the South Parks Commission in 1894 after the Colombian Exposition, advanced the reparation of the southside landscape. In due course, the temporary structures of the fair were dismantled and disorderly grounds restored as best possible to coincide with F. L. Olmsted’s original plan.

Chicago Historical Society Archives, Jean Block, South Parks Commission Historical Register, University of Chicago Archives and Lee Hall’s Olmsted’s America