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Old Glory

Once a sumptuous playground for the city’s elite, the South Shore Country Club has been reinvented as a community cultural center—but only after a long, hard battle saved this 100-year-old shoreline gem from the wrecking ball.


A 1910 horse show at the South Shore Country Club

As the daughter of a navy lieutenant once stationed near the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, Jean Heyworth had viewed plenty of palatial resorts. Still, as a newlywed in the late 1940s, her first passage under the porte-cochère that framed the entrance to the South Shore Country Club felt like a step back in time. “It was something out of a glorious era,” recalls Heyworth, “so grand and beautifully appointed. And the food was fabulous.”

The waiters paid special attention to her host, Lawrence Heyworth, who was both her father-in-law and the founder of the club. He was nearly 80 by then, a bit slower in stride as he walked the passaggio the length of a football field, passing furniture and paintings he had personally chosen. Through 20-foot-high windows in the dining room, he could see the lakeshore expanse he had selected for the club almost 50 years earlier. Recalling her father-in-law’s affection for this playground, Heyworth becomes a bit wistful today. “It broke my heart when [the members] finally had to sell it,” she says.

Lawrence Heyworth died in 1951, and within a dozen years the South Shore Country Club began showing signs of decline. As the surrounding neighborhood changed, many members closed their accounts and moved away. The longtime bastion of white gentility, once an exclusive home-away-from-home for the city’s movers and shakers, hired mod bands and go-go dancers, and otherwise searched for ways to draw young people. After several years of operating in the red, offset by the occasional glimmer of hope, the officers predicted in the 1971 annual report: “Dissolution of the Club appears inevitable.”

It would be another three years before club members voted to sell the place, and then another three during which the wrecking ball seemed ever poised to strike. But an ongoing show of unity from the neighborhood held back the ball, and a multidepartment city rescue effort came together: Chicago’s Public Building Commission working with the Chicago Park District, which worked with the city, which worked with the schools, and so on. Eventually the club was reborn as the South Shore Cultural Center. The building and grounds continue to undergo restoration, but this April marks the 100th anniversary of the facility’s official founding-an occasion to recall a provocative history and point to the place’s tremendous potential.

The South Shore Country Club began as the brainchild of several members of the Chicago Athletic Association, but it was Heyworth-the association’s president-who made it happen. He knew about the site from driving out to the undeveloped tracts of land south of Jackson Park. “It was from these trips that I came to the conclusion that this would be an ideal spot,” he wrote in a club anniversary book.

The second son of a prosperous real-estate developer who came to Chicago from England in the 1860s, Heyworth became known as a delightful raconteur while growing up amid the social register set on Prairie Avenue. He studied engineering at Yale, and after graduating, in 1890, he worked for the pioneering skyscraper contractor George A. Fuller, whose company oversaw construction of the Monadnock and Rookery buildings. On the many evenings Heyworth spent at Bournique’s, the de rigueur dance academy on 23rd Street, he crossed paths with Cecile Young, the eldest daughter of Otto Young, who was a generally unassuming millionaire save for perks like a Lake Geneva estate.

Heyworth and Cecile wed in 1897, and together they had two children. He built his family a mansion on South Michigan Avenue but soon sold it for a more prestigious address on Calumet Avenue, just east of the Marshall Fields’ home. He went into business with his father-in-law, and in that capacity he supervised construction of the high-rise still known as the Heyworth Building, on the southwest corner of Madison Street and Wabash Avenue.

In 1906, while going through a nasty divorce that got splashed across the pages of the newspapers, Heyworth oversaw the creation of the South Shore Country Club. He used his own money as down payment for the roughly 60 acres of lakefront, then persuaded the meatpacking heir J. Ogden Armour, the department store founder Charles A. Stevens, and Silas Strawn (of the law firm Winston & Strawn), among others, to become directors. With the membership roster growing daily, Heyworth gave a photo of a clubhouse he had seen in Mexico City to the new architecture firm of Marshall & Fox, which in two months designed the Mediterranean Revival likeness that Heyworth wanted. The club’s opening took place on a rainy afternoon in late September with a 21-gun salute and, over the protests of local prohibitionists, 92 cases of Champagne. The club followed up with facilities that catered to golfers, tennis players, equestrians, lawn bowlers, and trapshooters. Lake Michigan served as the swimming pool.

Mingling with the city’s merchant princes were politicians, surgeons, and brewers-folks who could clear the membership hurdles. A gunpowder manufacturer was accepted; a butter merchant was not. Eligibility rested largely on personal recommendations and on meeting stringent economic, social, and ethnic qualifications. That pattern would hold throughout much of South Shore’s existence, even in later years, when the neighborhood became heavily Jewish and African American. Even as late as April 1969, the club’s president assured the audience at a special meeting of its board that there were no plans “to lower the bars and relax the qualifications for membership.”

The club’s early years were prosperous, prompting the re-upping of Marshall & Fox for a larger clubhouse, which over time hosted the actress Jean Harlow, John Cardinal Cody, a queen from Romania, and an annual “Follies” revue that showcased members’ comedic talents. Anyone wishing to make a night or season of it could stay in one of the 89 guest rooms on the upper floors. The original clubhouse, meanwhile, was saved and incorporated into a building called the Bird Cage, where sport fanciers could dine without having to change into formal attire.

Heyworth, his second wife, Marguerite, and their son, Lawrence Jr., moved to the bustling neighborhood that sprouted up around South Shore in the 1920s and ’30s, when the population grew to 65,000. By then the president of a construction company, Heyworth saw the area reach saturation shortly after he and Marguerite celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in 1939. When Lawrence Jr.-a navy officer who had helped pluck the aviator and future president George Bush from the Pacific Ocean in 1944-visited with his bride a few years later, the population of the South Shore neighborhood was nearly 90,000. (Today, the community’s boundaries are roughly 67th and 79th streets on the north and south, and Lake Michigan and Stony Island Avenue on the east and west.) Like the legion of city politicians before him, Richard J. Daley joined in 1950, recommended by Judge Joseph Graber of the Superior Court of Cook County. Three years later the number of applicants exceeded the spaces available and the club started a waiting list.

By the next decade, with rising crime, failing schools, and racial tensions plaguing the city, some young parents left to raise their children in the suburbs. As more sons and daughters declined to take over their parents’ memberships, South Shore’s roster was cut nearly in half. Projects undertaken to spruce up worn facilities failed to reverse that trend, and by the late 1960s, the club was running a deficit. Expenses were cut to the bone, yet patronage dwindled further as stories spread about safety concerns and the club’s possible sale. From a high of 2,002 members in 1956, there were fewer than 800 in the early 1970s. “The difficulty was really finding new members,” says Tom Reger, the club’s treasurer at the time. “In 1973 it became obvious something would have to happen.”

Early in 1974, members of the Nation of Islam announced that they hoped to spend $50 million to raze the club for a hospital, but that plan failed to materialize. Finally, on July 14, 1974, the club closed, abruptly unsettling the permanent, mostly retired residents who by then called the guest rooms home and had been given only weeks to move out. Wedding receptions, luncheons, and other events scheduled for later that year were canceled.

Around this time, the club’s governors received a letter from Heyworth’s niece Evelyn Stamm asking them to “consider favorably presenting Uncle Lawrie’s portrait, which now hangs in the Library, to his son, Rear Adm. Lawrence Heyworth, Jr., who is presently stationed in Honolulu.” Stamm’s son, Paul, who lives in River Forest, remembers that the portrait was briefly at their house. “[My mother] then boxed it up and shipped it off,” he says.

Although the club’s history stood in stark contrast to the ideals of community organizers promoting managed racial integration, club members and local residents now came together to save the facility from demolition efforts. “The community knew about the beauty of the property and that [membership] had been restricted. Opening it up became the goal,” says David Offenberg of the South Shore Cultural Center Advisory Council, one of the hundreds of groups across the city responsible for forwarding suggestions on programs, maintenance, and other facility matters to park district officials.

“The building has always been sort of a landmark. The community would lose a lot if it were gone,” says Polly Silberman, an advisory council member who has been a South Shore resident and activist since the 1960s. “We drove by it and saw an opportunity.”

Backed by a 1976 bond issue, the Chicago Public Building Commission met the members’ asking price of $9.9 million and turned the club over to the park district, with the remaining $2.6 million from the bond issue earmarked for renovations. The plan had the support of top city officials, including Mayor Daley, longtime activists say, so it was a surprising twist when park officials wasted no time bringing down the Bird Cage, and then applied for a demolition permit for the main building. Park officials at that point had no experience in running cultural centers and wanted to put up new athletic facilities. “They had a field house mentality,” says Silberman, “and that’s totally different.”

Now began the 30-year struggle to transform the club into the South Shore Cultural Center. “It was one of the park district’s first major restoration projects,” says Edward Uhlir, who was the district’s lead architect on the exterior portion. Bolstered by copies of original drawings found in a Marshall & Fox archive, Uhlir’s team soon restored the main building to its original color scheme. Carpets in the solarium came up to reveal intricately patterned tile floors, which, like the ornamental ceiling features, were eventually refurbished. The work, which concentrated on the first and second floors, began in 1979, shortly after shooting wrapped on scenes for The Blues Brothers in which South Shore’s exterior doubles as the Palace Hotel.

Since reopening as a “Palace for the People” in 1985, the center has enjoyed mixed success. Thousands have attended its outdoor summer jazz festivals, but an outdoor theatre pavilion still in acute need of repair sits nearby. Another theatre, named for the actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson, has new floors, but it rarely serves as a venue for concerts or plays. And other than a few worn settees, the long passaggio is nearly devoid of furniture; the original pieces were auctioned off to members when the club closed.

City officials acknowledge that budget constraints have kept the interior work episodic, but they are hopeful for a boost from the City Colleges’ Washburne Culinary Institute, whose kitchens and classrooms now occupy the center’s top floors. The institute’s creations are on the menu at The Parrot Cage, which has taken the place of a large dance studio on the first floor. Mayor Richard M. Daley led a brigade of supporters at the restaurant’s ribbon cutting this past January. “The preservation and restoration of this place is unbelievable,” the mayor said.

This summer, the nine-hole public golf course will continue to offer lessons and a women’s league, and the four tennis courts should have been resurfaced by then as well. The center’s day camp, which caters to about 200 children, provides dance and theatre programming. A new camp will offer bicycle riding, an intergenerational walking club, and healthy food classes in conjunction with the Washburne Culinary Institute.

Raymond Davis-who had been part of the 30-year push for a cultural center and, since December, has served as the president of the South Shore Advisory Council-is confident the center will achieve a “citywide presence.” He hopes the long-delayed build-out of the upper floors comes next. Ghostly, gutted shells of the country club’s guest rooms are all that remain on the second floor, which Davis and fellow board members would like to use for arts programming. “We see the beauty of the culinary school,” he says, “but, hey, let’s finish the job.”

Meanwhile, says Andrea Adams, the center’s director, the ballrooms are already booked every weekend through 2006. An early set of build-out plans is framed on a wall near Adams’s office. “That’s to remind us of our vision,” she says.

Former members, some of whom can remember the guest rooms in their prime, find occasion to go back. After Bob O’Brien and his wife, Gerry, compiled a 500-page book of South Shore recollections, they reserved the solarium for a launch party. “It’s gradually coming back to its old glory,” says Bob O’Brien, “more like it used to look in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.”

This past February the center offered a free night of ballroom dancing, complete with lessons and an 18-piece orchestra-the start, predicts Adams, of a program that might appeal to even more people from across the city. “That’s going to bring back the dancing,” she says. “We want to reminisce about what used to be here.”

 


Photography: Chicago Daily News Negatives Collection/Chicago History Museum

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