Ben Hecht’s Hyde Park Home
For a closer look at the house, launch the photo gallery »
The prolific Hecht, who would later win two Oscars for screenwriting, was in his late twenties when he was a boarder in this 1860s structure. At about the time he lived here, he was writing his “Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago” column for the Daily News and had his first play, The Egotist, produced in New York. He may also have been starting his friendship with fellow newsman Charles MacArthur, which resulted in their play The Front Page.
Hecht was a tenant in today’s property, which was built in the 1860s as a boarding house. “That explains why it’s so big,” notes Bobbie Pottenger, the agent selling the home for Charles Custer, who bought the house about 50 years ago with his now-deceased wife, Irene. The house has about 7,200 square feet of living space above ground and another 1,300 in the partially finished basement.
Custer has moved to an apartment and the home is being emptied for the eventual next owner, so you will have to excuse the boxes seen in today’s video. But at the same time, savor the many vintage details that are intact both on the fanciful exterior and inside, particularly in the large foyer with a beamed ceiling, leaded glass windows, a tall, tiled fireplace, and light fixtures that are believed to be the original gas fixtures (later converted to electric).
On a stair landing overlooking the foyer is a quirky detail: three panes of lovely stained glass were removed for restoration, but when put back, they went up in the wrong order, so that the largest one, which was supposed to be in the center, is on one side.
The very long living room, most likely formed from two original parlors, has leaded glass windows, wood trim and doors, and another handsome fireplace; beyond a pair of still-working pocket doors is the dining room, also filled with wood. Here there’s a nice bay of windows overlooking the side yard and a terrific built-in sideboard that surrounds a third fireplace.
Almost half the first floor is now occupied by a decades-old kitchen/breakfast room combination that a buyer is very likely to want to update. As Pottenger notes, there’s ample space to create the kind of kitchen/great room/family room space that works for today’s families.
On two floors above are most of the nine bedrooms. They’re in various states of disrepair—and some still have their original shaving sinks. There are some vintage finishes like crown moldings still in place, as well as high ceilings and tall windows. Porches, balconies, and turret rooms are sprouting everywhere.
The spacious attic space was made livable as well—although it’s still accessible only by a pull-down stairs that would have to be upgraded to meet today’s codes. There’s a large greenhouse up there, as well as a room whose checkerboard flooring and mirrored walls are reminiscent of the 1960s, not the 1860s. Off that room juts one more balcony, a sun-drenched spot that seems ideal for spending your thousand and second afternoon in Chicago.
Price Points: The house, which is being sold as is, first came on the market a year ago, with an asking price of $899,000. Pottenger says that the cost to renovate “starts at a couple hundred thousand, but from there it depends on what you want to do.” If it were in pristine condition now, she says, it would easily be worth $1.2 million to $1.3 million, given its ample space, beguiling façade, and prime location on a rare curving street just off Hyde Park’s 53rd Street shopping and dining strip.