Ask Lee Bey: A question about the architecture and history of Pill Hill

June 22, 2010


(photo by Lee Bey)

I got a note a few days ago from reader Gaylon Alcaraz. She asks: "Lee....what do you know about the Pill Hill area beyond the fact that doctors and lawyers live there? The homes are very "Californian" to me, with slanted roofs and just very unique designs. Do you know any history behind the development of the neighborhood?

Gaylon's right. The Pill Hill subdivision of the Calumet Heights neighborhood on the city's South Side is one of the more remarkable Postwar efforts to build an architecturally modern, suburban style subdivision within city limits. Another example is Marynook, about 10 minutes northwest of Pill Hill, an area we'll look at later this summer.‚  Pill Hill is bordered by 91st, 93rd, Stony Island and Jeffrey. Let's take a look around:


(photo by Lee Bey)


(photo by Lee Bey)

Researching the community was surprisingly tough, though. Let's begin with what we know. Pill Hill was largely built between 1954 and 1967 and sits on a prehistoric limestone ridge (there was a quarry south of 93rd and east of Stony prior to the neighborhood's construction). An upper class subset of the Calumet Heights neighborhood, the area's nickname comes from number of doctors from nearby South Chicago Hospital‚  (now Advocate Trinity Hospital) who once lived there. But the enclave and the surrounding neighborhood were known by more than one name, depending on who was asked. Media reports of the time called Calumet Heights "South Shore Valley" (which I kind of like), "South Shore Heights" and "Stony Island Heights." Pill Hill was called "South Shore Heights on the Hill," "South Shore Hills" and also "Stony Island Heights."

The neighborhood was pricey from the start, with an early 1960s Tribune story clocking prices between $30,000 and $100,000, even more. With that kind of dough in the game, the unique location and the popularity of "California Living"-type home design magazines, it's easy to see how Pill Hill wound up being a collection of pretty nice-looking residential modernism---scaled down to the confines of a city block.

And there was a sense from the start that the homes would be cutting edge. A 7 room, 3 bedroom tri-level model house at 1630 E. 92nd St was noted at the time for being an all-electric home--one of the few being built in the city. It's all here: wildly-pitched roofs, ground-hugging homes, Pop Art shapes and wicked topiary.


(photo by Lee Bey)


(photo by Lee Bey)


(photo by Lee Bey)

Then my trail got cold. I've yet to locate the architect(s) , or much of anything about the builders other than they were an outfit called Matela-Boyle Construction. The only other reference I could find on the firm was the Matela-Boyle Building located on Yates somewhere and designed by an architect I must find out more about, if only for his name: Louis Sullivan Jacobs. Did Jacobs design some of the houses at Pill Hill? Possible, but unlikely. He went on to design industrial buildings.

So the hunt will continue. Meanwhile, do you know something? Comment below. I've got a few reader questions like this one that I'll be answering in upcoming weeks . If you've got a question about a building or place in Chicago, send it to me at lee@leebey.com and I'll see if I can answer it.