During my recent visit to Northwest Indiana, I made a quick side trip to the Hyde Park section of Chicago, largely to browse through some of the bookstores near the University of Chicago.
As venerable universities go, U of C isn’t that old, having first appeared on the scene in 1892. However, its founders wanted to create an immediate impression that this was a place for serious study and research. That goal was partially expressed in buildings that, according to the University’s online history page, “copied the English Gothic style of architecture, complete with towers, spires, cloisters, and gargoyles.”
In other words, Chicago wanted to look more like Cambridge and Oxford, not Harvard and Yale.
And you know something, they pulled it off. Hyde Park has some of the most awesome architecture of any American university neighborhood. While the U of C has some edifice flops from the 60s and 70s (as do Cambridge and Oxford), the overall look and feel of the area is learned, old, and quiet — a sharp contrast to many other parts of brawny Chicago.
The previous site of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, since moved to roomier digs, is a perfect example. A few years ago I met up with my long-time friends the Driscoll family for a Hyde Park visit, and the bookstore was a primary reason for our gathering there. Sharon Driscoll, who is quite the amateur photographer, took the photo of me above in the Co-op building. It looks like I traveled back in time — and fortunately, my backpack made it there with me!
As for the University of Chicago, even in this era of growing vocationalism in higher education, it has managed to maintain its serious devotion to ideas. I’m sure it has made compromises to incorporate more career preparation, but it still remains a place where learning and scholarship are valued for their own sake. That is an increasing luxury in higher ed today.