Urban Renewal story. History and Preservation home. Development/Public Policy home.
53rd Street News. 53rd St. TIF story and home. Checkerboard Lounge controversy . Chess and Harper Court- story of a controversy over public/private space.
Harper Court Sale and redevelopment homepage
To Announcement of and link to Harper Court Area RFQ/RFP, released by City of Chicago and University of Chicago December 12, 2008

Harper Court/ website

The Harper Court story and the plight of businesses under Hyde Park Urban Renewal

A service of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, its Preservation and Development task force, and the HPKCC website, www.hydepark.org. Help support our program: Join the Conference!

Harper Court was sold to UC and is under RFP for redevelopment. News and discussion on this matter is now found in the Harper Court Sale controversy page and sub pages.


Knowing that the new commercial space would be created in the Urban Renewal planning would be very expensive, a group of Hyde Parkers, led by Muriel Beadle, the wife of the president of the University of Chicago, set about creating Harper Court as a way to keep such stores and services in the neighborhood. With a combination of inexpensive public and private financing, they were able to create Harper Court with modest rents.

Some local sources on the start of the Court, which drew national attention. The print sources are in Regenstein Special Collections, and until October 5 with much material in the Department of Visual Arts exhibit "Looks Like Feedom...Around 1968" at 5228 S. Harper Avenue.

"Poll for Harper Court [wanted] Shops. November 9, 1963 Chicago Maroon

"Hyde Park's Harper Court in the 1960s': The Cure for the Ills of Urban Renewal?" Barbara Baer, http://www.lookslikefreedom.com/harper_court.php

"Artisans Displaced by Urban Renewal hope for Haven in Hyde Park." Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1964

"Small Shops get their own Renewal." Business Week, June 29, 1966


Marc Johnson, former director of Harper Court, summarizes Harper Court experience for HPKCC's forum on The Future of Harper Court, April 11, 2006


Harper Court was built to replace businesses torn down in Urban Renewal, Johnson said. It was a planned unit development (PUD) that included what is now the Court, the city parking lot, and the site of McDonald’s. Originally, police and fire stations were supposed to go there, but when that changed no buyer was interested until the Harper Court Foundation was set up and bought the land for a dollar. To build the center, $100,000 worth of $100 bonds were sold and the rest was borrowed in 26 loans from the Small Business Administration, one for each space. The University and the Archdiocese of Chicago bought over half the bonds. Harper Court is not tax exempt and does not have property tax exemption, but a modest reduction. The Scan building’s arrangement is somewhat different, with 50-year leases that expire in 2016, after which it reverts to Harper Court. The bonds and loans were all paid off through a sinking fund about 1990.

The Center had 300,000 square feet (excluding the building built a little later by Scan Furniture and now housing the Checkerboard). The lower spaces have 6,000 square feet, the upper 12,000. The upper stories have high ceilings with operating louvers for “air conditioning” (real conditioners had to be added later). The lower spaces have very low ceilings. Johnson said not to blame the architect, Hyde Parker John Black, for the perpetual drainage problem—the lower level is below the sewer lines.

Johnson said the original vision to fill the lower sections with artisans was never realized. The restaurants basically footed the bill. Remodeling started from the beginning. Management continually wrestled with who to subsidize and how much—and how long with those that failed to pay their rent. The only remaining reduced rent artisan tenant is Artisans 21.

Johnson said the Harper Court Arts Council was formed in 1990 with bonds people turned in and said they wanted used to do nice or arts things in the neighborhood. The Council was also envisioned as the end point for the assets of Harper Court when the Court or Foundation someday ceased to function.
Johnson said the Court was built well and is still structurally sound and not settling. Almost all the windows are original, but single pane non-weatherproof. He said the plumbing and flooding are the most persistent problems. The buildings including electrical and plumbing would be very expensive to upgrade—the concrete was poured around the lines, and balconies did fail. Also, it would not easy to bring it to ADA compliance (which he characterized as rigid). He said complete ramping would make the lower spaces completely hidden and useless. Some ramps were added in the 1990s.He added that retail has changed and left these spaces behind, and the present businesses are highly dependent on the city lot being in operation.


Hyde Park Herald summation and take, June 14 2006.

This was part of an article on a group seeking a new board of former tenants to run the center, in tune with original purpose and good business. By Tedd Carrison

...In 1958, Chicago City Council approved the Hyde Park-Kenwood Urban Renewal Plan that would drastically alter the face of the neighborhood. Among other changes, the dense commercial corridors of 55th Street and Lake Park Avenue were to be leveled and replaced with a mix of business and residential development. the plan accounted for the displacement of every type of proprietor except artisans and craftsmen. The Herald highlighted this problem in 1962 with a sprawling three-page story that detailed the plight of seven businesses along a demolition-slated stretch of 55th Street near Woodlawn Avenue.

"The people in this area will have to travel far an be at the mercy of monopolistic shopping centers if, in this renewal program, some new thinking and planning is not forthcoming," Arthur Rice of the Hyde Park Printing Company told the Herald in 1962.

The non-profit Harper Court Foundation formed in 1963 to provide this "new thinking." Within two years, the Harper Court Shopping Center would open.

Though Harper court was first intended to house Urban Renewal displacees at low rent, only three of the 27 businesses that opened in the complex between 1965 and 1966 were seeking space after being vacated from elsewhere in the neighborhood, according to foundation records publisher in the 1968 report by the University of Chicago. Nineteen of the shops and restaurants fit the foundation's initial tenant-selection criteria, which called for "creative and instructional enterprises.. purveyors of aesthetic or intellectual materials... quality craftsman an artisans" and "retailers in unusual and superior commodities."

Today, Harper Court holds 15 businesses and Plants Alive is the sole survivor of the shopping center's original tenants. [Artisans 21 dates from 1979.]... Top

What the public thought of Harper Court in 1992

The board of the foundation must have pondered Harper Court's purpose when it conducted its own study released in October 1992 called "Public attitudes toward Harper Court." Customers were asked their views of Harper Court's stores and their attitudes toward the shopping center in general. Here's what the board found: 72 percent of respondents thought Harper Court has improved over the years, 84 percent thought it had a good mix of shops, 91 percent find the courtyard a nice place to sit and relax, 91 percent feel safe in Harper Court, 93 percent who visit Harper Court also patronize 53rd street stores and almost 95 percent find the center attractive.


The January 22, 2009 Chicago Weekly (Maryellen Sheridan) says the starters of Harper Court were rather elitist and UC oriented in their views of what should be in it-- picture framers and instrument stringers (July 25 1963 Maroon). A poll published in the Nov. 8 1963 Maroon added antique restorer, four kinds of bookstores, a flower-arranging school, and a Chinese teahouse.

First of Two takes on the formation of HC by Bruce Sagan, publisher of the Hyde Park Herald, from the 2004 50 Year commemorative issue

Harper Court: It takes determination and $100 bonds

To Four Hyde Parkers in Search of a Law (to save businesses), below

From the July 21, 2004 50 year retrospective issue. Views of Harper Court today
(Harper Court officially opened August 4, 1965. There is a plaque along one of the east openings about the Court and its original funders.)

Last year, when the University of Chicago offered the owner of the Checkerboard Lounge a storefront in the one university building [term leasehold having been just purchased from the Hyde Park Co-Op Markets] in Harper Court, it sweetened the deal with the rock-bottom price of $1.50 a square foot. that is about how much a 55th Street merchant paid in rent in 1963, the year Harper Court was created.

A place like the Checkerboard--a well-known small business that is popular, locally owned but unable to pay market rents--was exactly what the founders of Harper Court envisioned when they built the cluster of small businesses and artisans shops on Harper Avenue between 53rd and 52nd Streets.

The concept behind the court, which now houses the neighborhood veterinarian, a locally owned toy store, artisan's cooperative and popular restaurants, is that the commercial businesses will subsidize the rents of the smaller businesses. The original plan was to house the more solvent businesses in the top level of the two-tiered cottage buildings, while the artsy businesses would rent out the first floor.

The story of how Harper Court came into being features a cadre of leading residents, including Herald publisher Bruce Sagan, who came up with an idea and relentlessly followed it through to the groundbreaking. It also could not have happened without the financial support of hundreds of Hyde Parkers.

Muriel Beadle's memoir, Where Has All the Ivy Gone contains a chapter devoted to the establishment of Harper Court. It opens over lunch. Mrs. Beadle, the wife of University of Chicago President George Beadle, agreed to meet three leading Hyde Parkers to talk over an idea. Two of those men were members of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, Martin Leiberman and Irving Horowitz. "The other was Bruce Sagan, younger and shaggier, publisher of the Hyde Park Herald (and a flock of other community newspapers), shrewd businessman, patron of the arts, dabbler in back-room politics: half con man, half knight in shining armor."

The backdrop is Urban Renewal, and it methodical demolition of 55th Street. As Beadle points out in her book, no one had given much thought to the fate of the hundreds of small businessmen located on what was then Hyde Park's main commercial strip (1).

Also slated for demolition was the beloved Artist's Colony, a row of brightly painted wood frame storefronts on Stony Island Avenue and 57th Street that house everything from a pottery store to a used bookstore. "Will Hyde Park lose its artisans?" worried a Herald headline in April, 1962 (2).

The "Artists Colony" of Col Exposition era buildings Harper Court was built to replace
Artists Colony 57th west of Stony Island. Harper Court was formally proposed March 3, 1963 and opened August 4, 1965 with fireworks.

It was not just that businesses had no place to go. For those who could find a vacant storefront in the neighborhood, often the rents were too high. Sagan had surveyed the remaining artists and craftsmen in Hyde Park, and found out that most paid "somewhere between $1.50 and $1.66 a square foot." These low rents were demolished along with the buildings.

In a footnote, Beadle notes that the "final casualty list" for Hyde Park was the displacement of 641 businesses. Only 83 of those 641 businesses would remain in Hyde Park (3). "55th Street was a mile of inexpensive small spaces, where little shops could come and go and survive if they were lucky because the rent was low," said Sagan. "The stable ones like Anderson's Hardware moved in Hyde Park or went elsewhere and survived."

But as Urban Renewal rezoned a full 80 percent of Hyde Park business districts into residential use only (4), there was no place for small businesses to go. "When people complain about no retail, people don't know what it was like in 1965," said Nancy Stanek, current [then] owner of Harper Court's Toys, Etc., who was still a student then. "There was absolutely nothing there at that time."

[For more on the plight of small businesses, in the 1950's see below, Four Hyde Parkers in search of a law.]

More than just the large-scale loss of local businesses, Sagan and others were unhappy at the loss of specific businesses that they saw as contributing to the unique character of Hyde Park. "Hyde Park had that [arts-and-crafts] flavor about it in the beginning," said Stanek. (5)

The loss of the small artist and craft shop as well as the larger displacement of businesses prompted the University of Chicago academic Harvey S. Perloff to write in a 1955 Herald that the Urban Renewal program should create affordable commercial spaces for artisans and small businesses.

"We've done the feasibility studies," Beadle's memoir quotes Lieberman. "What's essential now is to organize the development effort, build community support, establish the sub-committees that will iron out the details." The men asked her to lead the effort. Beadle became the chairman of the Harper Court Foundation. The not-for-profit Foundation still owns and operates Harper Court.

She reflect: "Late May was the height of the University social season, and I seemed to be spending all my time in idle chit-chat with transient mobs of people. I was itching to do something with a beginning, a middle, and an end; something involving me as me. The delegation from the Conference may have wanted me as a symbol of the University, or even as a port of entry to the University's pocketbook, but I could show them that I had some value in my own person, couldn't I? You bet I could!"

Under Urban Renewal, three acres had been designated commercial centers: the Hyde Park Shopping Center at 55th Street and Lake Park Avenue, Kimbark Shopping Center, a cooperative at 53rd Street between Kimbark and Woodlawn Avenues and the center at 51st Street and Lake Park Avenue. The idea was to build a fourth district on Urban Renewal land that would be reserved largely for small, independent local entrepreneurs and artisans. It was above all necessary to keep the rents low. How to build a new shopping center and lease it out while keeping rents low?

Sagan came up with an ingenious and complicated solution using the government's Small Business Administration program for the smallest businesses a federal bureaucrat had ever seen and raising the equity money needed in $100 amounts from the community.

The financing ensured that "community enthusiasm was converted into a subsidy," as a late 1960s Urban Renewal study phrased it. The committee was able to get federal mortgage money for about 80 percent, or $480,000 of the cost. To come up with the remaining $120,000 needed, the group sold $100 bonds to Hyde Park supporters. Both the federal mortgage and the bond holders have been repaid (6).

Of this scheme, Beadle concluded, "All that remained to be done was to persuade 20 or more merchants to sign leases for the non-existent shop spaces whose completion date we could only guess at; have the leases ready at precisely the same time that we acquired the land, said acquisition to involve four city agencies and one federal bureau; raise enough money, again within the same time span, to pay for the land which we might not get and whose price we didn't know; and construct the buildings, using federal funds that might not be loaned to us." A typical enough Hyde Park Story. (7)

Footnotes by Gary Ossewaarde

(1) 55th had the infrastructure for a major commercial strip, including alleys that paralleled the street in back and the main firehouse.

(2) This editor is told the proximal dooming factor in the demise of the Artist Colony was the decision to make 57th one-way eastbound between Lake Park and Stony Island--one of many steps to both calm traffic and deflect "undesirables" and maybe commuting park 'n riders? from the neighborhood.

(3) This is greatly higher in proportion to the two-fifths loss of neighborhood residents being served--from 71,000 to 43,o00 let alone that as businesses collapsed and walking the streets became progressively more unsafe in surrounding neighborhoods through the '60s, many shoppers would look to come into Hyde Park. As a grad student in the mid 1960s, I and my friends noted the dearth of retail even for basics in Hyde Park.

(4) This diminished the widespread practice of "mixed use" development--now a watchword; Jane Jacobs was a lonely voice in the early 1960s-- commercial on the ground floor and residential (sometimes with office or cottage industries) on the upper floors. Also out at the time was commercial and residences at or close to the sidewalk. Urban Renewal and other 60s and later development instead gave us big buildings in seas of greens--University Apartments, the Newport, 4850 Lake Park, Lutheran School of Theology, UC Law School....

(5) The 57th Street Art Fair had started c. 1948 and was followed a few years later by the secessionist Community Art Fair. In the early years a large proportion of displayers were locals, several having major reputations.

(6) Many bondholders generously declined to take repayment.

(7) Harper Court used a complicated system in which leaseholds were sold but not land. The leaseholds were for 60? years--and so progressively lose value as the termination date approaches. The Court also was forced to compromise early, bringing in large retailers and few really small artisans. The layout and construction was confusing, with hidden-from-view spaces, is now aging and is not ADA compliant.


Sculpture: "People Watching" by Matthew Freedman, unveiled November 5, 1986. Also, May 27, 1964 Harper Court was given an old cast iron fountain for people and pets. It was and still is used as a planter. See also the story of the chess tables and chess in Harper Court.

Views of Haprer Court Harper Court with "People Watching" by Matthew FreedmanSee the end story
Views of Harper Court  


Four Hyde Parkers in search of a law

By Bruce Sagan, Hyde Park Herald 50 year retrospective issue, July 21, 2004

Urban Renewal was particularly hard on small businesses, which had always been an important characteristic of Hyde Park. While building owners were offered "fair market price" for their buildings and "standard" housing units were found for relocated tenants, there was no such compensation for the business man. He was simply told he would have to move and was not given money to relocate.

Huge swaths of the neighborhood were re-zoned from business to residential. By the end of Urban Renewal, a full 80 percent of business districts became residential or institutional. Planers created three manor commercial areas, the 55th Street Shopping Center [UC owned], Kimbark Plaza [a cooperative with acquired partial UC ownership] and the Village Shopping Center at 51st Street and Lake Park Avenue, to accommodate some of the relocated businesses, but there was not nearly enough space for the 641 businesses eventually relocated. As former Hyde Park state Rep. Abner Mikva noted, "You'd practically have to come from the Mayflower to get a spot in the Hyde Park Shopping Center." Urban Renewal, Mikva said, "was built almost to the exclusion of commerce," as planners believed too much commercial business undermined a neighborhood's stability.

Old Hyde Park commercial district Old Hyde Park commercial district
55th before clearance, looking east from Maryland (above), west from Lake Park, and northwest corner of 55th and Lake Park as cleared for the Shopping Center in the mid 1950s. Land cleared for Hyde Park Shopping Center. Disatisfaction with land for local businesses was a factor behind building Kimbark and Harper centers.

There was no government agency or laws that addressed businesses relocated under the federal Urban Renewal program. "The businessman is the 'left-out' fellow of redevelopment," warned a Herald editorial of June, 1955. The paper began a series titled Businessmen and Bulldozers, profiling the myriad locally owned stores pushed out of the neighborhood during these turbulent times.

Herald publisher Bruce Sagan and three other prominent Hyde Parkers--Hyde Park Co-op General Manager Walter Sandbach, 5th Ward Ald. Leon Despres and South East Chicago Commission Director Julian Levi--decided there ought to be a law that would help the small businessman. They lobbied Hyde Park Congressman Barrett O'Hara, who sponsored a House bill that would provide long term, low-interest loans and moving expenses to relocated businessmen. In the Senate, Hyde Parker Paul Douglas sponsored a similar bill.

In May 1956, the four traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for merchant compensation. In his weekly Herald column, Despres detailed the trip. A morning of testifying before a House subcommittee, a meeting at th White House with former 5th Ward Ald. Bob Merriam by then working in the White House, and then a meeting with officials from the Small Business Administration.

The result was a bill to compensate businessmen who lost their locations in federally sponsored Urban Renewal programs.

[After: The power of eminent domain especially in Illinois was and remains very strong, as evident in rezoning 80 percent of then retail as residential and in both clear cut and spot urban renewal. Ironically, just after UC Humanities Dean proposed in her 2003 Talking with Strangers that the UC make a gesture of reconciliation with its neighbors by leading an effort to tone down Illinois' strong eminent domain laws used to such effect in Urban Renewal, the US Supreme Court approved a strong state eminent domain taking from some to give to other private developers. (However, some legal experts point to a time bomb in the decision--some public purpose outcome(s) must be shown.) The Tribune has presented a series on the dilemmas in a January 2006 issue. The legislature will be wrestling with the issue in 2006.]


Harper Court "People Watching" sculpture may be saved by Lab School, which has old associations

Herald, June 15, 2011. By Daschell M. Phillips

The University of Chicago Laboratory School has expressed interest in acquiring the "People Watching" sculpture that is currently located in Harper Court.

The Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce, which is serving as the guardian of the sculpture, is currently in negotiations with the Lab School to have the sculpture moved from Harper Court, where the current structure of the retail units are being razed to make way for a new shopping center.

Lenora Austin, the out-going executive director of the chamber, said she hopes the negotiation is a success so that the sculpture "wil not become the victim of the wrecking ball." The cast iron, three-figure sculpture, which was created by Lab School alum Matt freedman, was unveiled in Harper Court in 1986 and considered a nice compliment to the area, where residents lounged on benches and steps and played chess. The "People Watching" sculpture was Freedman's first large commission.

Freedman's alum status as well as the fact that his mother was a teacher at the school is part of the reason the Lab School is interested in the piece. The school is considering establishing a gallery that will display the artwork of its alumni and faculty.

The chamber is offering the sculpture as a gift to the school for the purposes of preservation. It also plans to offer the school $1,967.52-- the money it allocated to the maintenance of the sculpture--to help facilitate the move. "The move would accomplish the goals of both organizations and keep the piece in the community for all to enjoy," Austin said.