Like it or not, you can't think Hyde Park without also thinking University of Chicago. For as long as most of us can remember, this culture-rich south-side lakefront community—extending from 51st Street to Midway Plaisance and Cottage Grove Avenue to the lake—has been more like an elite college town dropped into a big and sometimes alien city than like, say, any of Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods. Both Hyde Park and its neighbor, Kenwood (especially south of 47th Street) have been dominated by the university and—for better or worse—would not be what they are today without it.
Hyde Park's founder was a young lawyer named Paul Cornell. Back in 1853, acting on a tip from Senator Stephen Douglas, he bought 300 acres of swamp, named it after the Hyde Parks he knew in his native New York and in London, and began to develop it as an upscale residential suburb and vacation retreat.
Cornell is the visionary responsible for the great Jackson and Washington parks and the mile-long Midway Plaisance between 59th and 60th streets, which connects them: designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, they became Hyde Park's spectacular east, west, and south borders. He also ensured that his nascent community would have railway service to the city by giving the Illinois Central land for a station. And, perhaps inspired by his brother-in-law John Evans, one of a group that had founded Northwestern University in 1851, he planned for it to have the prestige and stability that would emanate from a resident institution of higher learning. Cornell offered to donate a generous parcel of land if the Presbyterian Church would build its Theological Seminary of the Northwest in Hyde Park.
The Presbyterians refused, and the residential development proceeded without this crowning amenity. But nearly four decades later Cornell's dream came true in a bigger way than even he could have imagined: the University of Chicago opened its doors on Midway Plaisance in 1892, and Hyde Park became the company town of one of the world's truly distinguished universities.
While the University of Chicago is the 800-pound gargoyle, it's not the only major force that shaped Hyde Park's history. First was annexation to Chicago. When Cornell bought his property, Chicago ended at 39th Street. By 1861 his village was part of a township, also named Hyde Park, that extended all the way from the city's southern border to 138th Street. In 1889 the township, which had grown rapidly but lacked adequate public services, voted to become part of Chicago, and the village of Hyde Park, whose residents were better served and mostly opposed annexation, was swept along.
Annexation was almost immediately followed by two incredible engines of development. First, Jackson Park was chosen as the site of the 1893 Columbian Exhibition. Since the arrival in 1869 of a streetcar line that ran along Hyde Park's western border and across 55th Street, the village had grown: smaller homes had sprung up on the west side and a commercial corridor had developed along 55th. But the exhibition was expected to draw an astounding 300,000 visitors daily. Along with those fabulous White City structures (including the Palace of Fine Arts, which survived the fair to become the Museum of Science and Industry), it would spawn a frenzy of hotel, apartment, and commercial building.
At the same time the American Baptist Education Society, which had seen an earlier University of Chicago succumb to financial failure, was starting over in Hyde Park. (The first U. of C., remembered today as Old University of Chicago, was opened by Baptists in 1860 at 34th and Cottage Grove and closed in 1886.) The Gothic towers of the new university—which was spearheaded by the man who would become its first president, William Rainey Harper, and bankrolled by fellow Baptist John D. Rockefeller, neither a part of the earlier school—rose on land donated by Marshall Field along the north side of the Midway. Faculty, staff, and students became resident Hyde Parkers, while Kenwood, a community of handsome mansions on spacious grounds known as the "Lake Forest of the south," was home to business titans like mapmaker William Rand, meatpacker Gustavus Swift, and lumber magnate Martin Ryerson. Over the next five or six decades the university became a globally recognized hub of intellectual activity, incubating everything from President Robert Maynard Hutchins's Great Books curriculum to the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, pulled off in a bunker under Stagg Field.