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If you are from Hyde Park, or from Chicago, you probably know a lot about Frank Lloyd Wright and the Robie House. You probably know less about Robies themselves. Lora Hieronymus Robie was a University of Chicago grad (1900). She grew up in Springfield, where her father was a bank president. While a student in the university, she lived in Nancy Foster Hall. She met Frederick C. Robie at a University of Chicago dance during her senior year. Fred Robie grew up in Englewood. He attended Purdue, where he studied engineering, but he left before graduating to join his father’s company, Excelsior Supply. It began as jobber of parts for sewing machines and shoe stitching machines, then added bicycle parts, and then added automobile parts. Around 1905, Frederick persuaded his father to expand into manufacturing, specifically automobile engines and motorcycles. Lora Hieronymus and Fred Robie married in 1902 and lived in Hyde Park. They bought the lot at 58 & Woodlawn so Lora could be close to campus. They commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright because Lora admired a library he had designed for a school in Springfield at which she had taught. The 3-car garage was Fred’s request. As you may know, the Robies lived in their house for only 14 months. In 1911, Lora moved back home to Springfield with their son and daughter and filed for divorce, alleging infidelity. In addition to marital problems, Fred also had business problems. Excelsior Supply failed in 1911, perhaps because of the financial drag of the expansion into engine manufacturing, or perhaps because of the need to settle debts incurred by his father, who died in 1909. Robie sold the motorcycle company to Ignaz Schwinn. In 1913, an Excelsior motorcycle was the first to go 100 mph. In the 20s, Excelsior because one of Big 3 motorcycle manufacturers, alongside Harley Davidson and Indian. Fred Robie took personal responsibilities for the remaining debts of the company and declared personal bankruptcy in 1913. Among the personal assets he pledged was a house at 5757 Woodlawn.
Next door, across the alley at 1220 58th, was the Albert A. Michelson house. To many, it is one of the most charming houses in Hyde Park. Frank Lloyd Wright probably hated it. The architect was Philip Maher, the son and partner of a famous Prairie School architect. The clients were his in-laws, Albert and Edna Michelson. In 1926, Michelson was at the end of a long career that had included a Nobel Prize in physics, the first in the sciences awarded to an American. The French cottage was the Michelsons’ garden house, built in the backyard of their residence at 5756 Kenwood. The conservatory was for Edna Michelson’s flowers. The unfinished brick, called “Chicago common,” gives it a rustic look, but the house and the walls that enclose the yard were originally painted white. After the Michelsons, the house was for decades the residence of the president of the Chicago Theological Seminary.
The house at 5757 Kimbark belonged to Dr. Philip and Mrs. Florence Miller. Dr. Miller was a medical professor at the University of Chicago. His wife was the famous one. Her maiden name was Florence Lowden. Her father was Frank O. Lowden, a US congressman (1906-11) and the governor of Illinois (1917-21). Gov. Lowden was one of the contenders who was cast aside in the original “smoke-filled room” in the Blackstone Hotel in 1920, when Republican bosses chose Warren Harding for the nomination instead. Florence Lowden’s mother was Florence Pullman Lowden, the daughter of George M. Pullman and the namesake of the Hotel Florence on 111th St in the town of Pullman. Half a block east, 1314 E 58th was the childhood home of Justice John Paul Stevens. He attended the lab school across the street and the University of Chicago down the street. His father was the proprietor of downtown hotels, including the Stevens Hotel at Michigan and Balbo, now known as the Chicago Hilton and Towers. Stevens was a moderate to conservative Republican when President Ford nominated him for the Supreme Court in 1975. He retired in 2010 as the dean of the court’s liberals. President Obama replaced him with Elena Kagan, who began her career as a University of Chicago law professor.
Across the street, behind the Lab School, is Scammon’s garden, the last part of an estate called Fernwood. The owners were Jonathan Young Scammon and his second wife Maria. He was an “old settler” who came to Chicago in 1835 and had a career as a lawyer, a real estate investor, and a banker. After the Scammons were burned out of their Michigan Ave mansion in 1871, they lived in a house called “Fernwood Villa” at 5810 Kenwood. The Fernwood estate originally encompassed Dorchester to Woodlawn from 58th to 59th. Maria Scammon donated the last block to the University for the Lab School, on the condition that the northern portion be preserved as a garden for the children. Halfway down the next block is the site of the Howard Taylor Ricketts home, 1360 E 58th. His residence no longer exists. Ricketts was a pioneer in the study of infectious disease. In 1906, he discovered that ticks are the carriers of Rocky Mtn Spotted Fever. The bacterium that causes the disease was later named in his honor, Rickettsia ricketsii. Rickets died of typhus in 1909 in Mexico, where he had gone to study a disease called tabardillo. He probably acquired typhus from an insect bite.