Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Spring Beauty

In 1833, Charles Butler rode along the only road that once ran through Hyde Park--the road that ran from Detroit, around the bottom of the lake to Fort Dearborn at the river mouth. Somewhere around Hyde Park, he reacted: "On my left lay the prairie, bounded only by the distant horizon like a vast expanse of ocean; on my right, in the summer stillness, lay Lake Michigan. I had never seen anything more beautiful or captivating in nature. There was an entire absence of animal life, nothing visible in the way of human habitation." (As Others See Chicago, p. 41). A day or so before, he had crossed the Little Calumet River in Indiana, a land "low and marshy" with some  groves where the "naked" Pottawatomies were camped.

On April 10, I too walked through a grove along the Little Calumet,thanks to the National Park Service, which has conserved a two mile stretch. It's a patch among the fields called the Heron Rookery. When I first went there, it was indeed, full of herons, who fished the fast moving stream to feed their young. But as time has gone on, the herons have disappeared, but still every spring, the Heron Rookery bursts forth with spring wild flowers. It cycles through stages across the month of April--blood root, hepatica, rue anemone, trout lilies, Dutchman's breeches, four kinds of trillium, and wild geraniums. Every visit is different.

If you hit the cycles at just the right time, it seems to be a elven forest--spindly trees in a mist of green--the first possible showing of leaves. The path rolls across the sand shore--every year, following a different route because the swift flowing water gouges through the sand ridges with every flood. And on the ground, a carpet of white. This year on April 10, I hit the spring beauty, hepatica, rue anemone, trout lily, dutchman's breeches phase--with just a hint of mayapples. The carpet of white is more delicate for them. The trillium phase is bolder--Grandiflora, Nodding trillium with their large white faces and the narrow flames of Wake Robin and the unusual yellow trillium.

Still, I got to see hundreds of my favorites.

Dutchman's Breeches


Trout Lily (the unusual white and the more common yellow)

Once upon on a time, I could have seen them all in Hyde Park. It too was an area of sand ridges, marshy swales, and streams etching their meandering way through the sand to the lake. In 1868, Paul Cornell had set about creating his parks--Washington, Jackson, and the Midway Plaisance--and hired Frederick Law Olmsted to create a landscape that would please the Easterners flooding into the new city. Olmsted looked at the future Hyde Park and despaired. Chicago was "low, flat, miry, and forlorn, with a bleak surface, arid soil, and exposure to harsh and frigid gusts of wind." (Chicago Gardens: The Early History, p. 2)

The traditional plant life of the East had no luck here. Farmers tried and failed because the sandy soil of the ridges drained so fast, the demanding crops died for lack of moisture and lack of nutrients. Gardeners still despair when starting to grow a traditional garden in Hyde Park dirt. The layer of oak leaves in what groves there were left only a narrow band of topsoil that was acidic and the sandy silt holds neither water nor nutrients. Lots of topsoil and compost get poured into the dooryards to produce the tulips and daffodils that blaze forth now in April.

But as late as 1890, Spring Beauty itself still came to Hyde Park. The Midway Plaisance was still a marshy, sandy, place. In Sweet Clover: A Romance of the White City, Clover rides with her future beau in a carriage down the Plaisance: "Birds glided noiselessly among the trees that lined each side of the driveway. Grassy fields stretched away in level tranquil monotony in all directions." Clover in laments several times that her girlhood of picking wildflowers throughout Hyde Park is gone with the wildflowers, which have disappeared under buildings and pavement.

I'm glad that the National Park Service has preserved a sliver of this out in Indiana.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Wallach Fountain at the Point

One of my favorite sights in Hyde Park is walking out from the tunnel under Lake Shore Drive and seeing the sleeping fawn on her pedestal--Hyde Park's anima locus. She was always destined to sit here, even before the Point itself. The Point was created in the late 1920s when the lakefront was expanded. The photo at this link shows the landfill beginning:

Apparently the Point didn't look at all the way it does now before 1936, when the WPA stepped in, creating the tunnel under what was then called Leif Erickson Drive and putting in the electrical, water, and sewer systems. Alfred Caldwell designed a landscape of limestone revetments meeting the waters of the lake, an open meadow, native plants, stone council circles, and a stone fieldhouse.

As the Point took shape according to Caldwell's vision, the grandchildren of David Wallach recalled that their grandfather, who had died in 1894, had left  $5000 (a fortune) to the city for a fountain at the intersection of 55th Street and the Outer Drive that would serve both "man and beast." In 1937, they sued the city for an accounting. The famously corrupt Park District grudgingly agreed to a fountain, and so the Wallach fountain was finally commissioned. Since horses were not allowed on the far side of Leif Erickson Drive, the "beasts" the bequest served became the myriad dogs who flock to the Point. A committee of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion tried to get the location changed to 47th and the Drive, but luckily Wallach's will was specific that it be at 55th and the Drive.

The commission for the fountain went to Mr. and Mrs. Hibbard of 1201 East 60th Street--Frederick Hibbard and Elizabeth Haseltine. Frederick took on the design of the base and Elizabeth, an assistant to Lorado Taft and an instructor at the University of Chicago, took on the design of the statue for the top. She studied animals at the Lincoln Park Zoo, looking for the right animal to suit Caldwell's vision, finally settling on the sleeping fawn. Her clay model was cast in bronze at the famous Gorham Company, Providence, Rhode Island.

Frederick created the base  "along modernistic lines" using Dakota Mahogany granite mined near St. Cloud, Minnesota. There are three fountains for humans on each side and the back, and one fountain for "beasts" at the front. There are abstract floral motifs in the polished granite. The polish enables the stone to withstand the weather. It was dedicated in December 1939, and there she slept through the USO picnics at the Point during the war, the huge crowds of sunbathers during the 1950s, and the Nike missile installation of the 1960s. There she slept until 1981, when one day she disappeared.

A dog walker came out from under the tunnel on October 21 and realized there was no fawn. The dog walker immediately contacted the alderman and the police. The Hyde Park Herald printed her picture and an anonymous donor offered $200 for her recovery, no questions asked, but to no avail.

Fawns sleep all tucked up under brush, even with predators stalking about. They won't move until their mothers return. Haseltine's fawn also waited. A Hyde Parker, poking around a salvage warehouse, suddenly spotted her tucked up and hiding among the architectural detritus. He called the alderman and the Area One crimes unit and the fawn was safe again.

When it became known that she had been fenced to the salvage warehouse on October 8 and the full-time Park District supervisor whose office was in the Point fieldhouse hadn't noticed her missing for two whole weeks and hadn't bothered to report the park benches that had been chopped up and vandalized at the same time, the citizens of Hyde Park were incensed. As the Herald said, the patronage-ridden bureaucracy of the Parks could care less about a "small charming beloved landmark in a small charming beloved South Side park" and so the citizens organized the Friends of the Point--and the Park District has had the citizens of Hyde Park to deal with ever since--the fawn's revenge.