Everett Avenue begins at the entrance to a limestone palace guarded by rows of stone goddesses and Ionic columns. The street runs for three blocks before it comes to a dead end in a shaded cul-de-sac. The neat rows of three-story brick apartment buildings, parked station wagons, and evenly spaced trees seem to be a world apart.
Today, the palace houses the Museum of Science and Industry. In its first life, it enshrined fine art during the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition, which briefly populated the Chicago suburb of Hyde Park with Japanese pavilions, a neoclassical “white city,” and ethereal gold statues. The cul-de-sac would not be there had it not been for the Exposition. To bring the thousands of visitors from Chicago’s center to the fairgrounds, the city built a network of rail lines. The fair lived briefly, but public transportation tied the quaint, secluded neighborhood to the city, and spurred its urbanization.
Developed in the first decade of the 1900s, the multi-family units in the cul-de-sac at the end of Everett Avenue offered affordable housing to the neighborhood’s newcomers. Today, the low-lying brick apartment buildings blend together, but one building draws attention to itself. Number 5458 is three-stories tall and made of brick with limestone trim. Thus far, it fits the basic descriptors of nearly every building on the block.
Unlike its neighbors, though, it is set back. A small front yard complete with beds of hostas, evergreen hedges, and a miniature maple separates it from the sidewalk. A wing of sunrooms extends forward from the façade, its whimsical yellow lattice windows leaning into the street.
The building feigns to be a grand home guarding its privacy. A black wrought iron fence topped with an even row of fleur-de-lis separates the narrow yard from the street. Two looming brick pillars bearing limestone globes stand on either side of the fence’s gate. A few inches from the gate, a steep flight of steps flanked by overflowing stone planters leads up to the porch. But it is only half-convincing: the front porch and the road are barely six feet apart. With so many pretensions in so little space, the entrance way is cluttered, as though the architect was more concerned about including the trappings of an upper-class home than the cohesion of his design.
The façade culminates in a yellow wooden cornice with a simple, dentil molding that recalls the stripped neoclassicism of a Georgian mansion. The turret that crowns the bank of bay windows to the left of the entrance way and the sharp incline of the roof suggest a complex network of gables. But the cornice abruptly stops with the façade, and what first appears to be the roof is actually a decorative ploy to hide the flat, metal expanse of the true roof. The façade obscures the building’s functionality, disguising it as the kind of palatial single-family home that apartment-dwellers could not afford in the early 1900s.
The second-story sunroom hangs over the porch, obscuring a stack of letterboxes that looms half-hidden in the shadows. The architect’s efforts to disguise how many families called 5458 S. Everett Avenue home were for naught. The side of the building reveals the distinctive stacked floors of a Chicago three-flat. In the two-flats, three-flats, and six-flats that populate nearly every residential neighborhood in the city, each floor is an apartment. Despite appearances, 5458 S. Everett Avenue has always been a multi-family home.
The old guard of Hyde Park dreaded the waves of urbanization that began in the late 19th century. The arrival of middle- and lower-class Chicagoans threatened the area’s exclusivity, and increased demand for apartments. To the neighborhood’s snobbier residents, anything but a single-family home meant a tenement where darkness lent cover for vice and crowding bred disease.
The idea that an apartment building could offer the privacy, cleanliness, and space sufficient for a respectable middle-class family was a new and contested idea at the beginning of the 1900s. Number 5458’s bay windows and sunrooms were more than aesthetic choices; they opened the building to the light and ventilation notoriously absent from tenements. A façade that misrepresented the number of residences blurred the line between single-family and apartment living. The building’s remove from the street and its wrought-iron fence established the possibility that privacy and population density could coexist. Today, the pretentious entrance is out of place, but then it was a statement that its upwardly mobile residents could be proud of their home.
The opponents of apartments in the early 1900s feared uniformity, as though someone living in a space identical to their neighbor’s could not possibly do anything original. Although Hyde Park was only briefly the home of a fair that offered a tasting flight of the world’s cultures, 5458 S. Everett Avenue reveals that it didn’t lose its taste for eclectic, international architecture when it became more densely developed and economically diverse.
Between the casement windows of the top floor’s sunroom stand miniature limestone columns that echo the classical motifs of the museum on the opposite end of Everett Avenue. In the yard, a small neoclassical portico gives character to what would otherwise be a generic mowed lawn. But the house’s inspirations go beyond the neoclassical. The lattice windows bring to mind a romanticized Renaissance village. The yellow beams of the roof of the top-floor’s sunroom extend out beyond its edge, forming the silhouette of a Japanese pagoda. The juxtaposition of these eclectic architectural details creates something entirely new, revealing that a small apartment building can aspire to the same variety and multiculturalism as a world’s fair.
Over the last hundred years, nature has embraced the house. Dead vines wrap around the Ionic columns of the portico, bringing an architectural motif associated with state houses into the realm of the quotidian. A magnolia tree planted in the front yard has grown so tall that it obscures the façade, securing more privacy than the wrought-iron fence ever did. Moisture has seeped into the wooden lattice windows; the paint is peeling, and the wood is just beginning to rot. Ivy rambles up the brick walls and curls over a windowsill, tentatively invading the interior. Despite the overgrown plants and hints of decay, the house is not neglected—the garden is too neat, the glimpsed interiors too pristine. Rather, they ground the building in the neighborhood, elevating it with the marks of age. It is firmly rooted, as much a part of the fabric of Hyde Park as the single-family homes it once mimicked. The apartment buildings that grew up beside it in later decades made little effort to disguise themselves; 5458 had already led the way.
Today, the pretentious entrance is out of place, but then it was a statement that its upwardly mobile residents could be proud of their home.
Dead vines wrap around the Ionic columns of the portico, bringing an architectural motif associated with state houses into the realm of the quotidian.