Chicago Tribune, April 23, 1911
HAVE you ever paused in transmetropolitan rambles at the corner of Cottage Grove avenue and Thirty-ninth street?
North of Sixty-third street it is the principal cluster of human interest and sociability is the residence portion of the great south side. Those who motor much strike it eventually. It is the hub of the large residence circle, including a considerable segment of Hyde Park to the south. It is a trolley junction point as well as an important elbow in the south park boulevard system. There prohibition ends, or begins, as you choose to express it. The “Grove and Thirty-ninth” has a history, although the same has not been entered into official archives.
These facts are for the enlightenment of those who skim past in the trolley cars and make no note except that here the dingy brick panorama comes to an end and there is a sudden spreading of parkway vista and flower beds. To the automobile tourist, the corners comprise a cab stand, a giant policeman, an echo of sporting extras, and a wide and brilliant interior wherein a head waiter kindly directs one to an aisle table.
Is that our Main street?
This was the question of a western visitor recently as he was being led north in Drexel boulevard toward the congestion of lights. It was his first evening in town and he had descended from the train at Englewood.
“Main Street” Still an Ideal.
Truly this little city life side show has been trying to look like “Main street” since recollection attends. It has never quite accomplished the feat. Many of its sincerest well wishers fear that it will never reach the resemblance to brightest State street so successfully donned by other centers, north and west.
In the truest sense, this is not a “commercial center.” Until recently it extended the palm as the south side’s principal Rialto and perhaps forever it will fold supremacy as an alcoholic Gibraltar. Once it actually lived a commercial life, and the passing of that is a part of its history.
Somewhat previous to the invention of the automobile yell and its mechanical accessories these corners were part of the wide, rolling prairies. Then a few wooden buildings came, the old settlers settled, and in the late ’70s it was the liveliest little span of city limits that ever beckoned the buggy boulevardiers. It is well known, of course, that until 1889 Thirty-ninth street was the southernmost boundary of Chicago. On July 15 of that year the town of Hyde Park, then the largest community in America under the sway of township government was annexed. Thereupon Thirty-ninth street lost its distinction, but not its business pressure. Hyde Parkers who had formed the habit of stepping over Chicago did not cease paying visits just because the novelty had worn off.
Cottage Grove and 39th Street
Arrow indicates Chicago City Limits
Robinson’s Fire Map
Odd Story of Old Boundary.
In spite of annexation, their thirsts refused to follow the way of novelty.
In that regard the old settlers can add an interesting mite. One of them confided the other day:
There’s an old story concerning the old boundary line of Chicago. You see, according to the official surveys, the dividing edge of the city and Hyde Park ran exactly east to the lake. East of Cottage Grove avenue, however, Thirty-ninth street itself swerved a little to the north. This caused the boundary line to plow right through a row of houses and cut diagonally through a whole block in reaching Lake Michigan. Officially, you see, a man could have opened a saloon almost anywhere on the south side of Thirty-ninth street so long as his bar mirrors ran parallel to the boundary line.
About the time of annexation some one succeeded to having the authorities declare that the prohibition limits, instead of following the old city line, should continue to splice Thirty-ninth street to the lake. All hope of installing bar fixtures on the south front of the street had to be abandoned. There has always been a question as ti whether the deal was put through by temperance zealots or by hard fisted saloonkeepers who weren’t looking for more competition. But the dotted line still runs “due east” on the old maps and certain householders nearby are night and day tripping back and forth over a geographical ghost whose ‘haunt’ cleaves their best parlor carpets.
Chicago “Dummy” Engine and Car
Dummy the First “Transport.”
That’s a vague imitation of the transportation facilities offered those who would venture south from Thirty-ninth street up to the early ’80s. A “dummy” engine and car attached ran on an approximate hourly schedule to Oakwood cemetery. Here at Thirty-ninth street was its terminal, and the place where travel-stained tourists changed for horse-drawn bob-tails to the city. You can see how important the junction was in those times, and what changes came to pass through the age of the cable to the luxurious pay-as-you-enter.
Do you recall what a “dummy” looked like?
It was a crated or canned locomotive. The engineer sat next to his boiler in a little red boxcar, from which the stack donated cinders to the surface of the old sand road. It wasn’t fast and it puffed tremendously.
“It wasn’t exactly so noisy as these roaring, screeching automobiles,” protests Old Settler when an excess of laughter is thrust upon the memory of the “dummy.”
Do not imagine that residents thereabouts were entirely dependent upon the “dummy” and the horsecar when they wanted to get into the heart of town. The Illinois Central railroad operated a schedule of three trains thence in the forenoon and three backward of an evening. A favorite bit of frivolity of those times was to refer to the first train in the morning as that dominated by the “works.” The second train was the peculiar conveyance of the “clerks,” and the third and last the particular choice of the “shirks.”
Cottage Grove and 39th Street
Horse-drawn cable cars
Switching Ground for “Grips.”
This quip, of course, ceased to apply when the railroad began running a rapid schedule to and from town in competition with the stately cable grips. By the way, the rope-drawn coaches made the corners a favorite switching ground until their abolishment several years ago. Now the big electric chariots drill past, barely condescending to stop on signal.
“Never knew that Thirty-ninth street was once a big gypsy camp, did you?” said David Cook, whose firm name is carved in the keystone of a building he erected long ago. “Well, where the big red brick structure stands at the southwest corner a sort of ridge used to begin. It was the only place of topographical eminence in the district, I believe. Every summer the gypsies used to come with their wagons and squat there for the season. They were often accused of stealing things from residents roundabout, but I suppose that’s a common charge directed against the nomads when there is blame to be placed.”
Pretty cottages and broad lawns exist in the memory of those who saw the junction before it acquired ambitions as a “business center.” Robert Axel was the first to boom the neighborhood by putting up solid brick business blocks. Axel began building at the northwest corner and continued covering property for nearly a block.
Tavern Prepared for Ascent.
He was the man who erected the famous wooden observation tower at Thirty-third and Cottage grove avenue in civil war days. Visitors from “the city” paid good prices for the privilege of mounting this airy skyscraper and viewing the layout of Camp Douglas, where thousands of confederate prisoners were confined. Axel operated a tavern in connection with this tower, and when the was was over he was able to move south a bit and prove his faith in the future of Thirty-ninth street and Cottage Grove avenue.
Henry Fassett built the first structure in the northeast corner. He had a cottage in the center of a large plot of ground. Then the late “Al” Houston came and established himself as a restauranteur, caterer, and genial life saver to panting citizens from Hyde Park.
Fading in the trail of the times is the recollection of the old “phaeton house” which occupies the center of Oakwood boulevard. This was a picturesque stone and ivy grown villa, where hundreds would wait Sunday afternoon for the quiet and conservative pleasure of riding to Washington park via phaeton. It was a “joy ride” behind a team of sleepy horses, garbed a funeral fly netting.
But even before the advent of the first comic “gasoline buggy” the phaeton fever burned out. So they moved the old stone villa or pagoda, or whatever it was called. residents who had imagined it as a thing of all time, with its heavy stone bulwarks and wealth of vines, were surprised one morning when they saw the house wheeling giddily around the corner of Drexel boulevard and speeding south to beat the sparrow cops. A wonderful transformation was achieved by those busy workmen with jackscrews and rollers.
Site Now Safety Zone.
Now the site of the old cottage is marked by three red globes and a cement oasis for startled pedestrians.
In the writer’s own recollection, which is that of a hasty observer, the corner has passed through three distinct stages in the last pair of decades. These eras may be divided into the “circus age,” the “commercial age,” and the “Rialto age.” Mining through the strata, one finds a continuous vein of restaurant gayety, active in the days of buggy and barouche, more in the days of the bicycle, and now finding apogee under the reign of touring cvar and taxicab.
To speak of “reign” in this connection by the way, is by the courtesy and permission of “Big Jim” Crane, the guardian of the corner and the police guardian who has watched the passage of events year after year, mixing into things when either him force or diplomacy was proper and desirable. There are plenty of grown men who nourish a respect for “Big Jim” first acquired, during schoolboy depredations. Although bis mustache Is tinged with gray, he is still the mainspring of authority at the junction. It io said he censors the list of accredited loungers so closely that those he might find unwelcome go a long way ’round.
Once strolling one ring circuses with balloon ascensions, fire eaters, card magicians, and other fakers made the corners their Mecca. Steady in competition was the Salvation army, the little circle of kneeling missionaries generally coming first in the contest of popularity.
In the later ’90s a “music hail” wae created out of a livery stable near the angle. and its rack of photographs invited the world weary to step Inside, order something at a white table. and hearken to the coon shouters and juggling prodigies of the period. The theater had been converted into a ball long before the incursion of moving picture temples. however.
Bank Caps “Commercial Age.”
Once upon a time a department store of pretensions illumined one corner. It was an awesome place to enter. Unlike the little dry goods shops of the neighborhood, its proprietor did not greet you and personally conduct you to the spool case. Instead, a genuine, breathing floorwalker directed you grandly “two ailes to the left.” And when the black garbed clerk accepted your dime or fifteen cents, as the case might be, she did not ramble to the cash drawer, but placed the money In the basket ot an aerial railway. Later you got your receipt and your neatly twisted parcel in almost the time it would have taken to walk for it—that is, if the basket hadn’t got stuck en route.
For several years. a second miniature department store ran in competition, and at one time a third was contemplated. The commercial period was capped when a natIonal bank building was erected right where the street cars stop. Now the lower floor is occupied by a chop suey restaurant, the dry goods marts are gone, and the commercial era has vanished with the little bumping cable grips.
The “Rialto age” was the most recent spasm of the corners.
Detail Chicago Elevated Map