Sunday, May 31, 2009

Demolition Man: How Hans Morsbach Razed the Hyde Park YMCA

posted by chicago pop

"A vacant lot is not a pleasant site, but at this juncture, it is better than a decaying, dangerous building."*

-Hyde Park Herald editorial, on demolition of the 1907 Hyde Park YMCA in 1983

In light of recent events surrounding Doctor's Hospital, it is interesting to look back to the treatment of another historic building of the same vintage, the Hyde Park Division of the Chicago YMCA, at what is now the Dorchester Commons mini-mall.

Based on the Doctors Hospital episode, you may think you already know what happens when you have a historic, pre-World War I building, a neighborhood landmark that for several generations provided service to the community, that is suddenly shuttered and stands empty for several years.

The neighborhood rallies to save it, the effort is spearheaded by pillars of the community, including restaurant owner and concessionnaire Hans Morsbach, who use an obscure law to outwit a large and bumbling institution, thus preserving the historical integrity of the neighborhood, and keeping out unwanted commerce.


You don't do any of that. Instead, you tear down the blighted building within two years (Doctors Hospital has been vacant for nine). Instead of a labor union, you get the University to pick up your legal costs. And if any so-called "preservationists" make a ruckus and start floating conspiracy theories involving backroom maneuvers by the University, you call in the local newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald, to give you unconditional support and tell them what the neighborhood really wants: Tear down that old eyesore because it's within 1,200 feet of my property!

And you pave the way for its replacement, not by a top-notch building by a famous German or Italian architect worthy of Harper Avenue, but by ... a suburban-style minimall.

Here's what the Herald, that unwavering champion of unwavering community values, had to say about the sad fate of the old YMCA building.

The long-awaited demolition of the Hyde Park YMCA building has finally begun...

It was clear ... to the community at large that the outmoded building could not be salvaged at a reasonable cost. We are pleased that the developer ... has recognized that the community wanted that building removed before any serious incident occurred in this massive property which was becoming a haven for derelicts, thieves, and mischief-makers.

Here is the best part:

We do not give credence to the notion being bruited about the community that tearing down the building was a "conspiracy." If one wants to define a conspiracy in this case as a concerted effort by many people and institutions to keep Hyde Park-Kenwood from becoming a slum, so be it. It is always sad when a neighborhood landmark is torn down. In this case, it is doubly sad because this proud building rapidly deteriorated before our eyes.

Hyde Park YMCA, Front Door
[Source, Hyde Park Herald, June 17, 1959]

The essential details of the story are this: for financial reasons, the YMCA decided to close its Hyde Park facility in August of 1980. By the end of September, the 74 year old building was vacant. By the spring of 1981, a small group of neighbors, among them Hans Morsbach, and represented by the South East Chicago Commission (SECC), filed suit against the YMCA claiming that "the boarded-up property is a threat to their property because of its deteriorated condition," and that it was "an imminent threat to the health and safety of plantiffs, the plaintiff's neighbors, and the surrounding area."

The plaintiffs in the case invoked an obscure municipal ordinance according to which neighbors who lived or owned property within a certain distance -- 1,200 feet -- of an abandoned or dilapidated building could sue the owner to allow for demolition by the City. In 1981, the YMCA came close to finding a buyer, a developer who expressed an interest in gutting the structure and converting it to rental apartments which would include, it was stressed at the time, no Section 8 units.

The deal fell through, the lawsuit was successful, and Morsbach's group had the old building demolished.

Perhaps Morsbach's effort to keep the 1916 Doctors Hospital building vacant for nine years running somehow makes cosmic amends for helping to demolish a 1907 building that was vacant for only 2.

*[Source: ]


Elizabeth Fama said...

I hope this doesn't offend anyone, but I absolutely detest the aesthetics of the Dorchester Commons mini-mall.

Raymond said...

It's awful, I agree...but the now defunct Baskin-Robbins there was where Barack and Michelle Obama had their first date. Think what may have happened if the building had survived!

chicago pop said...

There's another post in the story of Dorchester Commons, I promise you. That story touches on the baneful effects of commerce on placid Hyde Park, and how neighbors feared Dorchester Commons would leave 53rd in gridlock. Translation of neighbors' demands: Less commerce! More parking!


Stay tuned.

chicago pop said...

It's also worth pointing out that, for folks overly concerned with the height of possible construction at McMobil, the old YMCA, a classic Hyde Park building, was six stories at its highest.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Raymond, it's pretty clear that Barack was intent (for months) on that little smooch at the curb, whether he took her to Baskin Robbins or the Medici (which was in the space of Cafe Florian at the time) or anywhere else. So that particular bit of history wouldn't have changed if we had kept the YMCA building.

Richard Gill said...

Given that the Baskin-Robbins now has "history" associated with it, will some "preservationist" try to have the mini-mall designated as a historic site?

Richard Gill said...

What properties did Morsbach own within 1200 feet of the YMCA? Neither Medici nor his present home are anywhere close to being within 1200 feet.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Richard, Hans ran the Court House Restaurant (later called Casa Segunda) in Harper Court, in what is now Calypso's spot. I think that's within 1200 feet if you count it as the crow flies, but you're right that he wasn't technically the owner of the property. He also owns (or used to own; I'm not sure if he still does) an apartment building or two in the area, but I don't know where those were.

Richard Gill said...

Oh yeah, I forgot about the Court House. It was overrated, I thought.

David Farley said...

Isn't the obvious thing to turn Doctor's Hospital into a new YMCA?

The Calling Card Man said...

I lived in that grand old building during my youth in the late
1960's. I thought of that place as a home that would never go away, so it was an ugly blow to my fond memories to discover it was gone after I returned from New York. Yet another victory for the wealthy and self-serving.