A gaslight Eden: The forgotten South Side neighborhood of Aldine Square

June 8, 2012

For a few decades straddling the onset of the 20th century, Aldine Square was one of the city's most fashionable neighborhoods, with its big brick and limestone townhomes that surrounded a wooded park with a lake.

Built in 1874 between 37th and 38th streets bounded by Vincennes to the east and Eden–a street that no longer exists–to the west, Aldine Square was where judges, attorneys and society folk lived. In 1877, the Chicago Tribune called it "the most charming of all the beautiful places of residence in the city."

But by 1938, Aldine Square was gone–razed to build the now-demolished Ida B. Wells public housing project–and is mostly forgotten. Fortunately, just before Aldine Square was demolished, the federal government sent photographers Joseph Hill and Robert Tufts to document the site. Their photographs, taken between 1934 and 1936, are among the few visual records of this spectacular place that looked impressive even in its final days. The photos are available online at the stellar Library of Congress site.

The westward-looking photo below shows the Aldine Square main entrance on Vincennes, marked by two big stone pylons. The 42 homes surrounding the park carried an Aldine Square address. Ragtime giant Jelly Roll Morton lived at 545 Aldine in 1918.

Here you can tell the still-stately homes have seen better days. The simple wooden footbridge in the foreground replaced a more elaborate original one:

Here's another view that reveals the architectural detail and Victorian-era grandeur of the homes.

What happened to Aldine Square? When black migrants from the South began settling in the area beginning in the 1920s, the white residents of Aldine Square–and the surrounding neighborhoods–moved away. The Tribune documented this in a 1929 story about a neighborhood reunion held by Aldine Square's original families. The article said the gathering was held at a downtown hotel by residents who "moved away from the path of the advancing Negro district."
 
That "Negro district" had some of the most substandard housing in the city, and the big, new, modern Ida B. Wells public housing project was supposed to fix those ills. Aldine Square, which occupied a small portion of the future public housing site, was nonetheless in the path of progress.
 
With the Wells homes gone, new houses will be built were Aldine Square once stood. But imagine if Aldine Square had been preserved. The area today would be a city landmark district and an asset to Chicago, as are the similarly-planned Groveland Park neighborhood near 33rd and Cottage Grove or Madison Park just north of 51st Street between Woodlawn and Dorchester.
 
The whole affair is another reminder that a city must be careful about what it demolishes.