Arcadia at the End of the El Lines
Chicagoland’s parks and green spaces
See Illinois (unpublished)
Another selection from my unpublished guide to Illinois history and culture. Not a history, really, but useful as a quick introduction to the topic.
Chicago has earned itself an honored place in the national history of parks and other urban green spaces. The provision of such spaces follows the pattern one sees everywhere in Illinois—ambitious reformers successfully press for innovations with high-minded social goals, after which the mundane tasks of maintaining and repairing such spaces is left to local governments whose minions are neither ambitious or high-minded, causing decay that eventually spurs new rounds of reform.
The first utopia that Chicago attempted to build for itself was not a new one, but recreations in various forms of a very old one—Arcadia. The greensward and the grove of trees were an ideal world compared to the clangorous, smelly city, places citizens might repair to for respite and rejuvenation. Such places had been scarce in pre-settlement Chicago, and those that had existed were quickly swallowed up by it, so news one had to be built in the form of parks.
The City of Chicago has had several parks systems, in effect. Their purposes have changed over the years—and with it their designs—as they were adapted to new constituencies with new needs. The first parks were venues for social display, later ones as open-air clinics for the improvement of public health, still later ones as sites for organized play, and later still as refuges for a nature otherwise crowded out of the city.
It makes for a complicated story, and an important one. “Chicago can easily be considered to be the nation’s most influential city of parks,” insists Julia Sniderman Bachrach, historian of the CPD. Nearly a quarter of Chicago’s existing 555 parks were created or shaped by some of the nation’s most significant architects, landscape designers, and artists, such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Daniel H. Burnham, Jens Jensen, Alfred Caldwell, and Lorado Taft. Jackson Park for example is thought to have it sowed the seeds of the City Beautiful movement; earlier fieldhouses of architect Edward H. Bennett of D. H. Burnham and Co. were the first of the building-type nationally.
Jens Jensen's concept for the Garfield Park Conservatory—nicely described by the AIA Guide as “landscape gardening under glass”—was revolutionary when it opened in 1908, as dramatic a departure from the Victorian hothouse as the Chicago School skyscrapers were from the typical business building.
Jensen conceived the Garfield Park Conservatory as a series of naturalistic landscapes under glass, a revolutionary idea at the time. The dome encloses approximately 4.5 acres; at the time of building in 1905, it was touted as the largest publicly-owned conservatory under one roof in the world. Jensen explained that the structure’s form was inspired by “the great haystacks which are so eloquent of the richness of prairie soil” and rock outcroppings along Illinois’s Rock River.
His reliance on Illinois’s indigenous landscapes for models was comprehensive; some of the conservatory gardens, were meant to emulate poetically the tropical appearance of the Chicago region during prehistoric times.
Annual attendance at the Conservatory peaked at half a million visitors in the 1920s. Attendance declined as the average income of the neighborhood dropped and fear of crime rose. The Chicago Park District skimped on maintenance on what had become a minor attraction, and the changes it did make over the years were insensitive to the structure’s original character. In the 1990s, the CPD began to rectify that neglect. Nearly $10 million in improvements were made to the building, its collections, and its grounds and a Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance formed to manage educational programs and visitor services. (The Conservatory, like Garfield Park itself, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) A new el stop was opened in 2001 to serve traffic to the grounds, and the Conservatory has become one of Chicago’s most popular attractions once again (although visitors to the park at first were still advised to tour only during the day and in groups).
The Conservatory even regained some of its long-lost symbolic significance. In 2002 Mayor Daley nominated the area including the park as part of his Green Town, "the intellectual and physical center of Chicago's greening initiatives," according to one city brochure.
The Chicago Park District these days owns and manages more than 7300 acres of parkland, 552 parks and playlots, 33 beaches, nine museums, two conservatories inevitably described as world-class, 10 bird and wildlife gardens, and a catalog of classes, and athletic events that rival many a school system. Keeping the circus rolling costs nearly $400 million a year. The system has figured nearly as prominently in the city’s history and reputation as it does in the daily lives of its people.
In its early days, and as was true in most cities, parks provided mainly as amenities by real estate developers or street companies. The private provision of public park space led to haphazard collections of properties that were too often located in more affluent neighborhoods. Private proprietors also had limits on how much they could or would spend to develop such properties, and there was little provision for long-term maintenance. However tainted their origins, these donated bits of green constituted virtually the whole of the city park system for some three decades after its founding. Only a few small parks, such as Union Park and the square that once occupied the City Hall site, were provided by the city government.
A chain of parks and parkways had been proposed as early as 1841 but by the mid-1880s little had been built. As Robert Grese explains in his 1992 biography of Jens Jensen, Chicago in that era still had only a handful of public squares and small parks (the biggest covered 20 acres) that were more like empty lots than parks in the modern sense.
The absence of first-rate parks was a civic embarrassment, but Chicago of that day had more important things to be embarrassed about, such as an unreliable public water supply, so the city spent little on public pleasure grounds. The use of tax money for parks was resisted, however, both by the working class, who couldn’t afford them, and the rich, who didn’t need them.
The impulse to build parks may have been stilled but the impulse to use them was alive among the people, and they flocked to any patch of green. The city’s first popular “parks” were cemeteries, streetcars parks—excursion grounds, really—or pleasure grounds built as amenities by developers of upscale residential enclaves.
Among these impromptu playgrounds were parks intended not for the living but the dead. In the 1850s the city buried its dead in a lakefront lot on the outskirts of town. The corpses posed a health hazard so close to the lake, and City Hall ordered its removal. (More on that below.) The edict created a boom in private cemeteries. The Victorians had envisioned burial grounds as “resting places” and designed them to afford the dead comely views whose purpose was to reassure those left behind that their dearly departed had gone, if not an altogether better place, at least a greener one.
One such place was Graceland, which was opened in 1860 on land on what was then the outskirts of the city bounded by the future Irving Park Road and the future Clark Street. The ubiquitous landscape designer H. W. S. Cleveland did an early plan for the grounds that established a parklike feel, but the Graceland that is loved and admired was the work of Ossian C. Simonds. By use of access roads made to resemble rural lanes and extensive plantings of local species, Simonds gave visitors the illusion that they were taking a drive through the countryside, not what amounted to a landfill for corpses.
And just as Lincoln was a park that used to be a graveyard, so did the newer graveyards such as Graceland, Rosehill, and Calvary come to be used as parks, chiefly as places to ride and picnic. (In much same way, the larger public sees formal gardens such a the Chicago Botanical Gardens and private grounds such as the Morton Arboretum as private parks, to the extent that visitors to each have to be reminded not to climb the trees, play ball, frisbee, biking, or rollerblading; the CBG’s “visitor etiquette” includes instructions to not pick fruits and vegetables, walk in garden beds or “collect” plants, flowers or labels.
Streetcar companies, and later interurban systems built parks at the ends of their lines as an inducement for riders to get on board during weekends when the passenger load was otherwise light. Some of these attractions scarcely seemed worth a nickel it cost to go see them, consisting of little more than grove of trees and a few picnic tables. Others, however, were full-fledged pleasure grounds.
There were many streetcar and interurban parks scattered across Chicagoland. Dellwood Park in Lockport, for instance, began as a recreation destination in 1906 when it was opened by the Chicago & Joliet Electric Railway Company; Dellwood had a boathouse and a dance hall. (It’s still there, on the south side of Lockport on Route 171.) In 1904, the Aurora, Plainfield, & Joliet Railway opened a 20-acre park along the banks of the Du Page River at the end of its streetcar line in Plainfield known as Electric Park and equipped it with camping cabins, an auditorium and dance pavilion, and a baseball diamond with an enclosed grandstand; the park closed in 1923 when the streetcars were replaced by buses. Ravinia Park, future home of the summer music festival of that name, was an amusement park bankrolled by the old North Shore Line interurban; the Martin Theatre (then called Ravinia Theatre) dates back to that original construction.
It was typical of the early Chicago that even its parks were, ultimately, created to make money. A bit of greenery has always turned otherwise undistinguished real estate development green. As explained by CPD historian Bachrach, real estate speculators during the early 1840s began creating small public squares and parks to boost property values in the neighborhoods they developed. Examples include Washington Square, whose land was donated to the city by developer Orasmus Bushnell in 1842; Wicker Park, donated in 1870 by Charles G. and Joel H. Wicker as a centerpiece of their new subdivision of that name; the park at 1255 N. Astor Street originally known as Union Square and today known as Goudy Square was donated to the city in 1847 by real estate developer H.O. Stone. John G. Shedd devoted roughly an acre of the subdivision he developed on W. 23rd Street for a park but residents refused to agree to pay to develop it, with the result that he gave it to the city in 1888; today it is known as Shedd Park.
The agendas of two sets of influentials merged after the Civil War to create Chicago’s first public park systems. The maturing city was beginning to compare itself with established cities of the eastern U.S. The comparison did not flatter Chicago. City boosters came to see that, just as neighborhood parks enhance a real estate development, so a municipal system would enhance the value of Chicago as a whole.
Industrialism had by then already progressed enough to cause disquiet among those alert to the social costs of pollution, overcrowding, and bad sanitation. Parks were not a cure for these ills but they did offer medicine in the form of fresh air and greenery and opportunities for more healthful pursuits than were available in the streets. Chicago got its public parks when savvy backers cobbled a coalition of public health reformers and boosters to back creation of citywide system.
The champion of the public park in Chicago was Paul Cornell, the George Washington of the South Side around Hyde Park. What had been started as a summer resort for Chicago’s best families was burgeoning when the railroads made it a convenient year-around address. As settlement expanded so did Cornell’s ambitions for it. He aimed to give it the equivalent of Manhattan’s Central Park. That was beyond his means. Honoring what was already an Illinois tradition, Cornell looked to Springfield to bail him out by redefining private interest as public interest.
As passed in 1869, the state law authorized creation of three independently chartered park commissions—the South Park, the West Park, and Lincoln Park commissions. They were made independent—ostensibly so City Hall could not control them, in fact so the influentials who wanted them could. The commissions were given certain powers over land use in and near parks properties and empowered to levy taxes to pay for their development.
The first generation of public parks were designed for Chicago’s WASP-ish gentry, and those who yearned to be taken for the gentry. Historian Daniel Bluestone insists that it was through these masterworks of park design that the city's elites built what they failed to build in larger world—“an idealized commerce-free city located in artificial, tamed, refined nature."
As designed by Olmsted and Vaux on 371 acres bounded by 51st and 60th streets and South Parkway and Cottage Grove Avenue, Washington Park—then the western division of the South Park system—featured roads to display fine carriages, a horse racing track (then a distinctly posh pastime), and cricket grounds (then a pastime among Anglophiles). "South Open Green," a pastoral meadow with grazing sheep, was a perfect evocation of the English country estate.
These first parks were remote from the city’s working population physically, so they found it hard to use them—even if they had been welcome, and even if the parks offered amenities more tuned to their needs for family recreation. Those needs were met for the second generation of Chicago’s great public parks. Meant largely as public health improvements, the neighborhood parks quickly came to serve other functions. The parks were the town square of many a working class district, the site of speeches and meetings and union rallies until the bosses banned them. Dominic A. Pacyga, one of the historians of Chicago’s ethnic groups, lists parks with church, school, and saloon among the important components of community in the working class neighborhoods.
The Boulevard System
In 1849 it was proposed (by a developer named John S. Wright, who deserves mention because of it) that Chicago decorate itself with a system of linked boulevards a la Paris and other cities acknowledged to be cultured places. Given the state of Chicago’s development in 1849, this was a little like proposing to drape a mink coat on a horse. In the end it would be 20 years until the state legislature authorized the establishment of three regional parks commissions and thus gave the city the means to develop such a system.
H. W. S. Cleveland was hired by the city to develop a plan for a system of connecting boulevards that would link the properties of the three park commissions—Jackson and Washington on the South Side, what are now known as Douglas, Garfield, and Humboldt on the West, and Lincoln on the North. These boulevards would constitute a substantial park in their own right, being three hundred feet wide and fourteen miles long in all.
Design was left to the individual parks commissions, which were to manage them. Olmsted thus did the connecting boulevard between his Jackson and Washington parks. The job on the West was left to William Le Baron Jenney, who in 1879 was named that system’s chief engineer. Jenney had been trained at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris, where he saw was Baron von Haussmann could do with a boulevard; Jenny’s version was tree-lined boulevards connecting local the parks with squares (Independence, Garfield, Sacramento, Palmer and Logan) adorned with formal plantings and statues or monuments at the boulevard turning points.
The boulevards were decorated wit the doodads then thought essential to such displays, including grand statues, fanciful topiary and ornamental gardens and would in time become among the first city streets to be paved and lighted electrically. As their backers had hoped, these public investments attracted private development in the form of posh houses built by the rich, whose grounds added to the sylvan aspect.
As befitted their park-like nature, the boulevards were not to be disturbed by commercial vehicular traffic. By banning all but carriages from these roadways, the managers in effect concerted them into private driveways for the rich, although what amounted to horse-drawn buses were allowed upon them, to allow the not-quite-rich access to the parks that they had, after all, helped pay for.
By 1872 twenty-six miles of boulevards had been developed, at which point development stalled. (Burnham’s Plan of Chicago proposed in 1909, in effect, finishing Cleveland’s scheme.) Delays in converting Diversey into a boulevard link to Lincoln Park for example, resulted in development overtaking the area, rending conversion too expensive; all that remains of that plan is the name: Diversey Parkway. Lake Shore Drive was conceived, later, as a scenic boulevard linking the lakefront parks, but its utility as an automobile bypass could not be ignored, and it gradually was turned into an expressway.
The most exotic vision for a boulevard was Olmsted’s Midway Plaisance between Stony Island and Cottage Grove avenues along 59th and 60th Streets, laid out in 1871. Olmsted imagined pleasure boaters moving from the lake to Washington Park via a Venetian-style canal running down its center. (The excavation for the waterway remains to this day.) The Great Fire interrupted construction, then the boulevard was appropriated for use by the World Columbian Exposition (although cost probably would have obviated its construction in any event). After the Midway folded up its tents, the Plaisance was planted with American elms, which eventually turned that airport-scaled space into a leafy bower. Dutch elm disease, alas, decimated the trees in the 1950s.
What is now popularly known as the Midway, which was conceived as a means to connect parts of the city, became a means to separate them. More than one mile long and an eighth of a mile wide, the boulevard long functioned as a moat between what evolved into the north and south campuses of the University of Chicago. To bridge it aesthetically, in 1999 the University of Chicago conferred with the City of Chicago (which owns the land), the Chicago Park District (which manages it) and local community leaders to create a new plan to convert the Midway into something like a park.
The master plan, which is expected to cost $20 million and 10-12 years to complete, respects the original Olmstedian vision (of necessity, as the Plaisance is a National Historic Landmark). Pedestrian crossings at Ellis and Woodlawn are to be rebuilt to look like the sculptured bridges that Olmsted intended, complete with viewing areas and ornamental staircases connecting the street and the lower planted area. States the University: “It is our hope that the Plan will transform the Midway Plaisance into what it was initially intended to be, a beautiful park that links Jackson Park and Washington Park and rivals them for scenic interest and beauty.”
Neighborhood Parks Movement
Making a perfect city was beyond the ambition of most Chicagoans, who found it challenging enough to merely make Chicago a better one. “Fifty years ago, before population had become dense in certain parts of the city,” Daniel Burnham explained in his 1909 plan to remodel Chicago, “people could live without parks, but we of today cannot.” Bad sanitation, poisonous air, and overcrowding had taken their toll of the public’s health, and thus of public health. Children in particular had been left stunted in body and, it was assumed, corrupted in morals. The city’s sanitary reformers argued from the pulpit of the pamphlet that green open spaces were essential to public health, an antidote not merely to crudity—the original impetus—but to ill health and delinquency whose costs were beginning to weigh on the wallets if not the consciences of the middle class.
Many of those reformers were fresh off the farm. While millions of farm kids would have insisted that the cure for what ailed farm youths was to live in the big city, they were convinced that what city kids needed was a dose of the country life. Jane Addams sought to provide for children at Hull House what she knew from her own girlhood in the Stephenson County town of Cedarville–a safe and secure home and later, via parks and playgrounds, something like the opportunities of play that she found in the woods and creeks of the town’s rural environs. (See Sinnissippi.) an impulse that informed the then-new notion of playgrounds—artificial bits of country in the middle of the city.
A park was in effect a sanitarium, a healthful place to which slum-dwellers could recover from the contagions of the city streets. They would improve the public health and be a boon to public morality, since the good old-fashioned country pleasures of the playing field and fishing lagoon would seduce the young away from such city dens as the saloon and the gambling den.
The attempt to provide such parks made Chicagoland for a time an important center for innovation in park design and programming. As Julia Sniderman Bachrach sums up, “The city’s parks have long served as a national testing ground for revolutionary ideas, programs, and social reform efforts.” It pioneered in the provision and design of playgrounds when they were a new idea. Chicagoland for its part has been the scene of pioneering efforts in regional greenspace protection and, in recent years, large-scale ecological restoration.
The photographer Jacob A. Riis, whose photographic exposes of the grim lives led in the slums of the big cities made them a issue and he a prophet, spoke of the need for small playgrounds in a 1898 speech at Hull House, which is said to have inspired local reformers. Dwight Perkins—schools architect, preservationist, and reformer—organized a crucial experiment in which six school yards were converted to playgrounds. (school grounds were usually the only open space in the working class hoods) their popularity convinced Mayor Carter Harrison in 1898 to ask a special commission of the great and the good to draft a plan to add playgrounds to Chicago’s recreational menu. The membership of the commission—it included Perkins, Jens Jensen, landscape designer Ossian Simonds, sociologist Charles Zueblin, and settlement worker Graham Taylor—attests to the breadth of the progressive forces behind the idea, and of the talent at its disposal.
The commission’s 1901 report argued convincingly for a comprehensive metropolitan park system that would include playgrounds adjacent to schools and including playscapes in larger parks and smaller play spaces in the more built-up areas. Jane Addams in 1889 allocated a parcel of land at Hull House for one of the first model playgrounds built in America. Chicago was on its way to becoming the first major city to fully integrate play and recreational facilities into its parks, thus transforming parks from something to be looked at into something to be used.
Large parks had to be built where lots of open land was, which was usually far from where kids were. The new neighborhoods parks were to be different—smaller, so they could be built nearer to where people lived, with facilities geared to needs, or presumed needs, for exercise and instruction. These were to be the “lungs” of the congested city the innovative parks provided not only beautiful "breathing spaces," but also public bathing—few workers tenements had plumbing or space for bathrooms.
The first was the work of the South Parks Commission—McKinley Park, which opened in 1902 near the Union Stockyard. Composed of open prairie and cabbage patches, the site had previously been the Brighton Park Race Track. More than 10,000 people showed up for the dedication.
The South Park Commission in 1905 open ten similar properties across the city. This first generation of properties consisted of five parks and five squares, the latter so designated because they were smaller than 10 acres in size. In that brief morning when only the best was good enough for the poor; they were designed by the likes of the Olmsted brothers and the firm of Daniel Burnham.
The early parks system was a veritable nest of reformers, and many of the people who had worked with learned from the ladies in the settlement houses pushed for versions of them under public aegis in every neighborhood. As the teeter-totter was the central apparatus in the playground, so the field house was the central appurtenance in Chicago’s newfangled neighborhood parks. The field house as built by the South Parks Commission was a sort of recreational settlement house in which gyms pools were augmented with meeting rooms, branch libraries, exhibit spaces, and entertainment and educational facilities for all residents of the neighborhood, staffed by social workers.
Horowitz notes the field house functioned as a kind of distribution center for the culture of the central city, the means by which the improving values of the reformers might be imparted to the unwashed. Field houses built in the South Side and West Side parks were adorned with murals for which were to be an “effective agent in making good citizens of [the] foreign population.” SOURCE? similar to that used at about the same period to transform Russian serfs into model Soviet citizens. In 1912, for example, a set of 18 murals were painted on the field house at Sherman Park that depict historical figures such as Christopher Columbus and Jacques Marquette and were intended to instruct the users—most of them foreign-born—into the mysteries of U.S and Illinois history. The mural painted in Washington Park in 1915 and later moved to the Davis Square Fieldhouse is titled, “Constrictive Recreation, the Vital Force in Character Building.”
It as a trick to squeeze so much good out of so few acres, and those first eleven parks—McKinley plus Cornell Square, these were Mark White (now known as McGuane Park), Russell, Davis, and Armour Squares, and Ogden, Sherman, Palmer, Bessemer, and Hamilton Parks—proved to be a model for park reform in this country and abroad. They were still performing the same roles 50 years later. “Sherman Park was our country club,” recalled Alderman Ed Burke in Neil Samors’ book, Chicago in the Fifties.
We did everything in Sherman Park. That’s where I took my first dog for training and obedience, where we learned to swim and where we played I 6-inch softball. It had a beautiful lagoon where I probably fished for the very first time. During winter, the lagoon would freeze over and we would go ice skating and sledding in the park.”
The playgrounds movement was one of the first propelled by experts. Social workers, educators, child development specialists set about designing outdoor spaces and equipment to go into them that would direct children’s play into healthful forms. Children had never before been thought to need adults to show them how to play, but then children—well, U.S. children—had never before lived in cities like Chicago. The result of these interventions were the apparatus of playground of universal memory such as the metal pipe “jungle gym,” the strap swing, the teeter-totter—all largely invented, perfected, or popularized in Chicago.
These days playground reformers devote themselves to undoing much of what their predecessors worked so hard to achieve. The once-new playground equipment such as jungle gyms proved to improve kids’ muscles at the expense of their bones. They and their kin are being replaced by safer “interactive recreational environments” by the Chicago Public Schools and the Public Building Commission.
Summer Retreats For Kids
Jane Addams and her colleagues at Hull House advanced the ntion that cities were terrible places for children. The countryside like the one she grew up in in Cedarville in Stephenson County was where kids ought to be raised. Addams devoted considerable energies to beinging the countryside into the city in the forms of parks and playgrounds, but nothing beat the real thing. If you can’t bring parks to the city, argued many settlement house operators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, take the kids to the parks by sending them into the countryside for a week or two, as they might air out a musty mattress. The result was what amounted to rest cures for city kids.
These rural excursions were organized by private philanthropy, for the most part. The Gads Hill Settlement House in Pilsen held a summer encampment each year in Glencoe on the North Shore beginning in 1900 which entertained city women and their children until 1941. he 116-acre Camp Algonquin is a century-old riverside retreat on the western shore of the Fox River near its namesake town in McHenry County. Camp Algonquin was established in 1907 the Chicago Tribune and the Bureau of Charities. The focus of the camping program was giving city kids access to sunshine, fresh air and decent food, although like all of Chicagoland’s restoration summer facilities it gradually expanded its menu to include education, sports, and social work counseling.
In 1911 Louise deKoven Bowen—the Mrs. Joseph T. Bowen, who was president and treasurer of Hull House—purchased the 72 acres that would become the Joseph T. Bowen Country Club after her husband) and donated the property to Hull-House. For more than 50 years, it was used as a summer camp for inner-city children and their mothers on two-week retreats. The regimen would be familiar to anyone who endured summer camp—swimming, tennis, baseball, story-telling around the campfire. In time the camp welcomed those whose ills were physical rather than social.
After Hull House removed its camp program to Wisconsin, the Bowen Country Club was bought in 1963 by the Waukegan Park District and renamed Bowen Park. Lilac Cottage, which Bowen had built in 1928 to provide herself and Jane Addams suitable quarters on their visits, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
A more ambitious program—a resettlement initiative, really—the Allendale Farm School in the Lake County resort town of Lake Villa, founded in 1897 as a refuge for abandoned boys from Chicago. There founder Edward Bradley undertook what the WPR guide to Illinois described as ”an experiment in practical philanthropy.” Bradley set up working farm where the boys (when not in classes) grew crops, including strawberries and blueberries, raised poultry, herded and milked cows, and tended the horses and livestock. More than a farm, Allendale was a mini-society with its own economy, its own government and its own money, in which The boys paid for their room and board. They attended school too, and in their off-hours indulged in the usual improving recreations. The Allendale Farm survives as the Allendale Association, which runs a co-ed school on the grounds for adolescent victims of neglect, substance abuse, or emotional problems.
Lakefront parks of one sort or another had been urged as early as 1841 but the city would not be capable of so adorning itself for many years to come. Building a lakefront park is tricky business, for example, when one is never quite sure where the lakefront is; parks construction had to await—or, in many cases, was the pretext for—the engineered stabilization of the lake shore. In places where buildings already crowded the shore, parks could be built only on new land, created by filling in the shallow near-shore lake bottom.
It took decades to do—indeed, the work is not done yet—but the resulting system of lakefront parks is the pride of Chicago’s lakefront park system, indeed the pride of the city in many ways. The parks are immensely popular, and arguably the feature of that lifts daily life here above the Atlantas and Dallases of this world.
Daniel Burnham has been embraced as a hero of the common man by populist parks activists as the author of the recreational lakefront. There is irony in this. He foresaw it as a promenade ground for the middle and upper middle classes, not the softball-and-fireworks kind of place it has become. He also is credited with having created what many regard as that lakefront’s centerpiece—Grant Park, opposite the Loop between Randolph and McFetridge Drive, an open expanse of 319 acres of gardens and music amphitheaters and playgrounds on some of the most desirable real estate in the country.
Grant is sometimes referred to as Chicago’s “lakefront garden” but it more often described as “Chicago’s front yard,” and it is, since the American front yard is largely ornamental space that is seldom used. That is not the kind of park Burnham intended. In his 1909 Plan, Grant Park was to be a campus of civic and cultural buildings with the Field Museum of Natural History as its centerpiece at the eastern terminus of Congress Parkway, where Buckingham Fountain now stands.
To understand why those buildings are not there, one needs to hear the story of Aaron Montgomery Ward. The parcel of lakefront between Madison and Randolph streets was marked with the notation “forever to remain vacant of buildings.”’ This grassy strip was transferred to the city during the 1840s and formally dedicated as Lake Park. Montgomery Ward built his company headquarters in 1899 on Michigan Avenue between Madison and Washington. (The building is still there, in truncated form.) The avenue also was a prestigious residential and institutional address—the symphony hall, the library and key social clubs were located there.
These buildings faced what had been known since 1847 as Lake Park. It was aptly named; the shore was then still exposed to lake waves, with the result that erosion continually threatened to turn the park into a pond. The construction in 1852 of a railroad trestle across the park’s lakeward side offered protection from eroding waves and storms, and converted the in-shore waters into a placid lagoon. Under various aegis and for various reasons it began to be filled in.
The new land thus created was undeniably convenient in an overcrowded downtown. It was used as a dumping ground for all sorts of dubious things including a municipal armory, whose contributions to city defense were minimal but which served as hall at which First Ward aldermen staged notorious annual balls whose belles were the prostitutes that then populated the downtown district. Under indifferent city stewardship the Lake Park acquired a generally ramshackle appearance that was a civic embarrassment to all save the men who were responsible for creating it.
Ward, who overlooked the site from his skyscraper’s offices, sued first in 1890 for a cleanup. The basis of his suit was the 1839 blueprint for the harbor development drawn up by the commissioners of the Illinois and Michigan Canal that the public ground at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue is "forever to remain vacant." Ward ended up going to the Illinois Supreme Court no fewer than four times between 1890 and 1911, and won each time. He had good lawyers—his campaigns cost him about $700,000 in today's dollars. His arguments were less good. The commissioners most likely made that stipulation to guarantee land for the future expansion of public works in what was then still a working harbor—a 1834 woodcut shows the water area immediately off Lake Park reserved for wharves and slips—but the language was construed by the courts as justifying a ban on buildings.
As a result of the decisions, “free and clear” was interpreted in visual terms, which means that the ruling protect what is now sometimes referred to as the viewscapes. No structure—even one erected for public purpose—could cheat the Michigan Avenue grandees of their expensively acquired views. In 1910, Ward sued to bar construction of the Field Museum, which was originally to be built according to Burnham’s plan where Buckingham Fountain now stands, facing Congress on one side and the harbor on the other. Ward’s complaint caused the museum to be sited on land that is more remote from the Loop, less accessible by public transit. (In 1911 the South Park Commission had acquired riparian rights from the Illinois Central Railroad that allowed it begin filling the waters immediately south of the existing park; it was on this new land, eventually named Burnham Park, that the Field, Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium are located.)
Additions to the existing Art Institute were allowed under the court’s provisions, but only if they stand no taller than the parent building. One result was that the museum’s new Goodman Theatre had to be constructed substantially below grade, and even then the Goodman could not be equipped with a fly tower needed to lift scenery from the stage. The Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance, which opened in 2003, also has its working bits below grade. (The bandshell by Frank Gehry in Millennium Park was officially declared a work of sculpture to circumvent Park District height limitations on structures in the park.)
Ward fought to preserve the lake views that even then only the wealthy could afford. Nonetheless, Ward is usually offered as a champion of the common people as a result of his fight. Typical is the 1993 Tribune article that insists that Ward “argued that the 50-acre Lake Park would best be used as open green space for all Chicagoans.” In fact he argued his own rights as a private property owner to views and fresh air. The paper also alleged that the court battles “forced the city to create, enlarge and maintain” Grant Park. In fact, the court decisions only limited how the park could be used, or more accurately, how the structures in it might be built.
The fact that for 80 years no civic leader acted to name a civic something-or-other after Ward died is often attributed to his having annoyed City Hall while he was alive. It is more likely the fact that millionaire do-gooders constitute such a small constituency that no alderman felt obliged to cater to it. That long neglect was rectified in any event in 1993 when a seven-acre section of Grant Park along Michigan Avenue between Randolph and Monroe Streets, opposite his erstwhile offices, was officially renamed the Aaron Montgomery Ward Gardens.
Chicago’s newest major park is both old and new. Millennium Park’s formal arrangement recalls the Beaux Arts style of Grant Park, of which it is in fact an extension, but instead of the horsemen in bronze it displays contemporary artworks. Like Grant Park, Millennium is a manufactured venue, having been built a top a parking garage. It at least got Chicagoans buzzing about parks again, for the first time in a long time. Crowds have been huge, the press glowing, and nobody was too rude about the astonishing cost—something like a half-billion dollars.
However retro its design, Millennium is a thoroughly modern park in other respects. The costs overruns were staggering, the revenue to sustain it probably insufficient. It was paid for largely by donations from corporations whose names adorn its various facilities, an extension into the parks of a policy that familiar in museums and university campuses. Paying for it also justifies the policy by which whole sections of it are occasionally leased for private events; to that extent Millennium is not a truly public park at all.
Burnham Park was added to the lakefront in bits and pieces. The northernmost end, abutting Grant Park at Roosevelt Road, was created before World War I, when the Illinois Central Railroad surrendered access to a bit more of its once capacious lakefront rail yards; the area was filled in, and the Field Museum, forbade by law from being built in Grant, Park was put there instead. Beginning in the 1920s, filling in of the lakeshore between that point south toward Jackson Park began. Over time the IC’s abandoned 10-track main line was replaced by a linear park that is little more than a landscaped Lake Shore Drive between 23rd and 57th.
If Grant Park is the city’s most admired park, Lincoln Park is the best loved. As was noted above, the site of the future park had been the city’s main burial ground since 1843, which stretched from North Avenue to around Wisconsin Street and from Clark Street (then called Green Bay Road) east to the lake. Its life as a park for the living did not begin until 1860, when the city created Lake Park by setting aside 60 as-yet-unused acres between Wisconsin Street and Webster Avenue from the graveyard, which it had just decided to move for public health reasons.
Not all the remains in the old graveyard were removed. Pamela Bannos Northwestern University senior lecturer in art who has made the most in-depth study of the old graveyard, estimates that it once held the remains of more than 35,000 people, and that as many as 12,000 bodies may still be there. Builders working in the area often encounter old bones; that happened in 1998, for example, when excavation began for a parking garage at LaSalle and Clark Streets for the Chicago Historical Society. One family mausoleum, the Couch Tomb, was never removed, and it remains a reminder of Lincoln Park’s early history.
When Sara Jane Clarke Lippincott saw the site of the future park in the late 1860s, she found it “a dreary waste of drifting sand and unsightly weeds.” (The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, which opened in 1999 at 2430 N. Cannon Drive was designed by architects Perkins & Will to evoke the sand dunes of its pre-park days.) However, the tract had comely views and quickly became popular, in part because it was conveniently near neighborhoods of Germans, whose traditions included weekly park-going. “It is an off summer's day,” observed Lippincott, “when some German society does not hold a picnic there.”
Swain Nelson, a Swede, drew up the first plan for the park in 1865. (Colleague and successor, Olaf Benson made later changes based on that template.) It was largely Nelson who oversaw the construction of lagoons and the layout of paths and carriage ways and the plantings on the section between North and Diversey that gave it a character it largely retains to this day. (The Waterfowl Lagoon in the Zoo is the principal surviving feature of the Nelson plan)
George Ade, writing in the 1890s, recalls the lagoon-rich park of that day.
On the shores of these lakes, which are linked by quiet waters lying under stone arches, the young man who drives the delivery wagon sits of an evening and holds the hand of the young woman who addresses letters. They are very happy, as well they may be, for no Chicago millionaire has such a magnificent front yard, with such a large lake and so many stately trees around it.
Often praised for its “natural” beauty, Lincoln Park is in fact a creation of the engineer, the landscape architect, and the gardener. For example, it was built in no small part out of municipal trash. If visitors to Lincoln Park from Du Page County feel strangely at home there, it may be because in 1907 the Lincoln Park Commission bought more than 100 acres of land near Darien in what is now the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve and from it mined the topsoil that was used to build up the city park.
Later additions (built mainly to accommodate the expansion of Lake Shore Drive did not, for once, deface the original; Carl Condit called the remodeled stretch from North to Belmont that was developed in the 1930s a project that Burnham would have been proud of. “Seldom,” he wrote, “have urban technology and civic art been combined to better recreational and aesthetic ends.”
The six-mile-long Lincoln Park probably should be called Lincoln parks, as it evolved piece by piece over the course of a century as new land was added to it. In 1903 Ossian C. Simonds, the next great landscape designer to be trusted with the park, proposed extending it all the way to Devon Avenue, a mile past its present terminus, but during his tenure it could be extended only as far as Addison. In 1934 it was extended north to Foster Avenue. A further expansion from Foster to Hollywood Avenue on a series of fills done during the 1950s brought the park’s total acreage to 1200 acres.
Richard M. Daley has long talked of extending Lake Shore Drive to the city line at Howard Street on new lakefill that would be, in effect, an extension of Lincoln Park. The financial and political obstacles to the plan are considerable; if northward progress is made at the same average pace as in the past, Lincoln Park should reach the Evanston border in about 50 years.
Soon after the establishment of the South Parks commission in 1869, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were hired to develop designs for the tracts that were collectively known as the South Park. The west branch of that park is now known as Washington Park, where the old refectory (now known as the Pool and Locker Building at Pool and Russell Drives was restored in 1992. The South Park Commission’s original Administration Building) built in 1910 to a design by D. H. Burnham & Co. survives, largely intact, as the DuSable Museum of African American History
Olmsted’s original and extravagant version of the South Park was never built—the Great Fire put a stop to it. While Washington was substantially built in the late 1880s, most of its eastern segment—what became Jackson Park—was still marsh. When Olmsted was asked to help select a site for the world’ fair that Chicago was to host in 1892, he saw a chance to finish the park and suggested it as the venue. A new version of the park was drawn up to accommodate the fair’s peculiar needs. The only part of that Jackson Park that remain is the Wooded Island that sits in the Lagoon. Here were built the Ho-o-den, a group of three Japanese pavilions during the World Columbian Exposition. (The pavilions were destroyed by fire in the 1940s, and they were replaced by a Japanese-style stroll garden built on the north end of the Wooded Island.)
After the fair closed, Jackson Park was designed again, this time in 1895 by Olmsted’s sons. They took into account the changes to the landscape made for the fair—for example, by installing a reflecting pool meant to recall the fair’s Court of Honor. The park one sees today is essentially the one that was laid out in 1895.
City Park Renaissance
The Great Depression triggered an institutional rebirth of the parks movement in Chicago. The mass annexation of 1889 brought 120 square miles of adjoining territory into the City of Chicago, none of which territory was served by the existing three parks commissions. To serve it, another 19 park districts were eventually created. The fragmented nature of the system left most of these districts tottering on narrow tax bases, and many were not fiscally robust enough to survive the Depression. In 1934, the 22 independent parks agencies were consolidated into the Chicago Park District.
The new district was born under a promising sign, politically. The city was then being run by Democrats whom the Democratic President owed big-time, and from 1935 to World War II public works money from the WPA and other federal programs fueled a massive spending on new facilities from fieldhouses and landfills to artworks. Among the many projects that date from this era are the Lake Shore Drive bridge across the Chicago River and the completion of Burnham Park, whose development as a lakefront link between Grant and Jackson parks had been stalled by shortages of local funding.
That flowering did not last long. After World War II, the parks were no longer seen as the salvation of the city, least of all by the people who ran them. For them parks were merely one more source of jobs for the politicians. Patronage and worse was the norm for parks administration two generations. The result was what Carl Condit called official vandalism. The landscapes were not maintained, reform ideals abandoned, the facilities, save for those used for the newly-popular competitive sports, neglected. Chicago parks, once among the best in the nation, became complacent and corrupt.
Forrest Claypool, the first of a succession of reformist parks superintendents named by Richard M. Daley, conceded in a 1996 speech that by the 1990s, the CPD had become dysfunctional. Newspaper investigations had found that the Park District was running “ghost towns,” facilities with full schedules of programs and hardly anyone using them—one symptom of a system that being run for the employees rather than the public.
Among the graver offenses charged by critics in the 1960s and ‘70s was the willingness with which city authorities handed over lakefront land meant for parks for other public, but distinctly not recreational uses. A classic case was the decisions to build the McCormick Place convention center (“the Mistake by the Lake”) on Burnham Park. Condit noted the irony that the structure was placed in the park named to honor Daniel Burnham, a location that “represented a barbarous denial of everything that Burnham stood for as a planner.”
The more frequent crime against Chicago’s own parks heritage was stealing lakefront land for roads. In 1964 the Department of Public Works and the Park District announced a plan to widen and straighten South Lake Shore Drive from 47th Street to 67th Street, which would have required feeling some two thousand trees. It was met with deserved outrage. When construction crews started cutting down trees to make way for a major roadway extension through Jackson Park, South Siders chained themselves to trees. Construction of buildings along the lakefront drew growing public outcry. As a result of these criticisms, the city (under considerable political duress) adopted the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance in 1973.
That ordinance was but one manifestation of the new era of parks activism that began in the early 1970s. The good-government Friends of the Parks was formed in 1975, whose indictment against district management included squandered tax dollars, dilapidated facilities, incompetent or indifferent staff; worse, those neighborhoods that had once been the recipient of the best that Chicago parks providers could offer, the inner city, were routinely slighted.
The seeds of a renaissance thus were put into the ground, but they did not sprout until the election in 1989 of Richard M. Daley as mayor. Previously, the color green was associated with the Irishness of Chicago mayors, but the younger Daley brought a personal commitment to softening the city’s harshness with trees and flowers. His administration undertook an ambitious program that has seen the replanting of long-neglected park landscapes, the creation of several new natural areas on park lands, the rehabilitation of historic park buildings, as well as building new ones. Not perhaps since the days of Carter Harrison has Chicago had a mayor so committed to parks. The National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2000 awarded Daley its Trustees' Award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Policy, in part for his commitment to restoring historic parks.
The Chicago Park District also began to renovate itself institutionally. Budgets bloated by overstaffing were cured by paring away programs no one needed, contracting out management of parks services, including soldier field and the Lincoln Park Zoo, slashed payrolls, reorganized to put decision-making power in hands of neighborhood managers. Importantly from an historic point of view, the CPD realized that what the city needed was not to reinvent the urban park but simply to rebuild the good ones it already had. It set about restoring some of its treasures from the golden age and set about making the promise of parks, made so many decades ago, real for new generations of Chicagoans.
History by, in, and of, Chicago parks
People seldom think of History when they visit a park, but history fairly oozes from Chicago parks. The parks themselves bear names of persons presumed (at least officially) to be historically important and thus worthy of commemoration. Of the ten experimental neighborhood parks opened in 1905 for example, nine—Sherman, Ogden, Palmer, McGuane (the former Mark White Square) and Bessemer parks, and Russell, Davis, Armour and Cornell squares—were named for figures who were significant to the development of Chicago.
The list of local notables honored by having a park named after him or her in no way matches the list of local notables in breadth or length. Naming was and is usually done on a political rather than an historical basis. Humboldt Park, for example, was so named because it sat in the middle of what was then a German neighborhood. In short, who got remembered depended on who did the remembering—one reason why as late as 2005 only 42 of Chicago's 555 parks are named for a woman. (Parks officials have tried to redress that apparent imbalance; in 2004, for example, the Chicago Park District renamed 15 parks in honor of women. Whether that was a political, rather than an historical judgment, is debatable.)
Chicago’s public parks are by now themselves historical artifacts. Time and official indifference have taken their inevitable toll of the original inventory of park strictures and landscapes. Nowhere is this more true than in and around Jackson Park, site of the World Columbian Exposition. The structures and exhibits of the fair were meant to be temporary, and most the fair buildings were destroyed at the end of the exposition, victims of a spectacular fire whose flames reputedly dazzled sailors miles out on Lake Michigan.
A few relics have survived of the event that put Jackson Park on the map in every way. What is usually referred to today as the Iowa Building at 56th Street west of South Lake Shore Drive is really not the Iowa Building, at least not the original Iowa Building, nor does it stand on the same place as the original. A mix-up at the time resulted in the State of Iowa exhibits being housed in an existing park shelter which was added to for the purpose, converting a rustic shelter into a faux French chateau decorated with cereal grains. This stood until 1936 when a widening of Lake Shore Drive required its demolition; when a new shelter was built between Everett and South Shore extended and between 56th and 57th Drive, it became known as the Iowa Building and perpetuated the error.
The most imposing of the fair’s survivors is the Museum of Science and Industry. Built as the Palace of Fine Arts of the World’s Columbian Exposition, this building—designed by Charles Atwood—is the sole remnant of the great 1893 fair and its only fireproof structure. (The MSI’s head curator has explained that because of Chicago’s history of fires, donor nations would not send priceless artworks to the fair unless the Palace of Fine Arts was fireproof.)
Following the fair, the building housed the Field Museum of Natural History until 1920. It then stood empty and deteriorating, and became the focus of one of the first of many historic preservation campaigns in Chicago. Its future was secured in 1930 when Julius Rosenwald contributed $5 million to rehabilitate it as quarters for a new museum. Turning the temporary building into a permanent one of marble and limestone took ten years; the only concession to shifts in architectural tastes in the nearly half-century since it was designed was an interior done in the streamlined Art Moderne style—which by then was itself already old-fashioned. It is not the original building to be sure, but a look-alike is enough to tease today’s visitor with the grandeur larger enterprise. The building was marred for decades by a sprawling parking lot built, mall-like, at the front door; that happily was undone in 1998 when an underground parking garage was built on the spot, and its asphalt replaced by lawn.
Some features of the original fair grounds survive. The Wooded Island and Lagoon, in Jackson Park—for years a notorious assignation place for homosexuals—is today a nature sanctuary. The Japanese Garden in 1893 housed the Japanese pavilions known as Ho-a-den; in 1981 the gardens were restored and a new Japanese tea house built, but restoration is pretty much ongoing.
The Midway Plaisance is where the anthropological freak show known as the Bazaar of Nations was set up during the fair. Six hundred feet wide and running for a mile from Stony Island Avenue on the east to Cottage Grove Avenue on the west, the plaisance marked the southern boundary of the University of Chicago’s original campus. It was laid out originally to connect Washington and Jackson Parks with a pleasure canal—the center of the boulevard was sunk for the purpose six feet below street level, where it remains—but planners had to settle for a cheaper boulevard of Speerian proportions that was ample enough to accommodate a simulacrum of the whole world for those few months in 1983.
Today the mostly vacant plaisance is a National Historic Landmark owned by the City of Chicago and managed by the Chicago Park District. After the fair it was never much more than a grassy strip, useful enough for winter skating and student games, but neither a park or a boulevard. In the late 1990s plans were drawn up to complete this important piece of under-used and under-developed parkland. The first fruit of the joint project that began in late 1990s by the University, City of Chicago, the Chicago Park District, and local community leaders was an Olympic-size Midway Plaisance Skating Rink and Warming Center. The low parts of the plaisance had long been flooded to make impromptu skating in winters; in 2000-01 a permanent facility was constructed between Ellis and Woodlawn avenues. In summer, the facility will be used for roller skating, outdoor movies, concerts, and community festivals.
A companion project, a Winter Garden on the Midway Plaisance, a $1.6 million project jointly funded by the Chicago Park District and the University, was dedicated in 2004. Plans call for extensive landscaping and walking environment improvements, an urban horticultural center, and a children's garden and playground. It is not the first such pleasure ground in the area. In 1914 Midway Gardens opened on Cottage Grove Avenue, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed pleasure ground that offered open air café, a band shell and dancing (Bix Biederbecke and Benny Goodman played there), and a large winter garden. Edna Ferber used the Midway as a setting for her novel, The Girls. It was, shamefully, torn down in 1929.
Happily, a sizeable inventory of structures from the glory days of Chicago parks survive in other parks across the city. Humboldt Park’s lagoons and island, for instance, date from the original 1870 plan by William Le Baron Jenney, and district historians regard the area east of Central Park Blvd. is the oldest preserved landscaped space in any Chicago park. The bandstand, music court, boat house, and refectory from the Jensen era also still stand. The Spanish Baroque Revival "Gold Dome Building" built in 1928 to house the West Park Commission offices (and which in 1934 became the Garfield Park field house) survives, as does the Conservatory and Jensen’s formal flower garden south of Madison Street. (See also Nature Under Glass.)
Chicago’s parks also are home to buildings significant beyond their association with the parks. The City of Chicago had named several park structures official landmarks because of their architectural merit. Cafe Brauer in Lincoln Park and the Humboldt Park Boathouse Pavilion from 1906-07 are fine examples of the Prairie Style. The Lincoln Park Lily Pool also merits landmark status (”one of the most important historic landscapes in Chicago,“ says the city’s Department of Landmarks) as does the nearby Comfort Station (now known as Carlson Cottage) at 2019 N. Stockton Drive, which dates from 1888.
Columbus Park was named a National Historic Landmark in 2003—the only park among the 51 such sites in Chicagoland. The honor owes to Columbus being the masterwork of Jens Jensen. It was the only large park that Chicago allowed Jensen to design, and it usually is offered as offering the best realization of his Prairie Style. In it Jensen made real his notions of an idealized prairie, complete with imitation glacial ridges, natives plants, and waterfalls that echo his beloved Rock River valley.
Columbus is one of 13 properties that the CPD believes merit listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The others are Fuller, Hamilton, Sherman, and Trumbull parks—all part of the South Parks Commission’s pioneering neighborhood parks, and worth listing for that reason—and Grant, Garfield, Washington Square, Humboldt, Indian Boundary, Lincoln, Portage, and Riis parks.
Many other Chicago parks are significant to Chicago’s history. A good example of the former is Washington Square Park, which opened in 1842 on North Clark Street. Formerly a developer’s lure to well-off home buyers, the park later became a popular hangout for soapbox orators after the now-run-down neighborhood became a new bohemia—thus its popular nickname, "Bughouse Square." It is the city’s oldest public park, and in recognition of that status—and of the fact that the neighborhood is against a posh residential district—the park district, city, and neighborhood organizations agreed in the late 1990s to restore it, complete with a reconstructed historic fountain, period lighting, fencing, and new plantings.
Local history also has become one of Jackson Park’s many attractions. In the 1880s, engineers found a novel way to protect the south lakefront from erosion while still allowing people to walk to the water’s edge—a “beach” of granite blocks. By 2002 all that was left of this innovative feature was a several hundred-foot-long remnent north of 63rd Street. It was by then historic for a couple of reasons. One, as was pointed out by the Hyde Park Historical Society and Jackson Park Advisory Council, it was an original part of what is now a National Register property, Jackson Park. (The paved beach once protected the whole of the park’s lakeward side.) Also, this particular section was, until the 1950s, a “blacks only” beach. In 2002 city hall announced its intention to remove what was left of the beach and replace it with a concrete step-stone seawall. Protests by local residents led to the abandonment of that plan, and reconstruction based on the original was done in 2004.
The Chicago Park District and its predecessors were pioneers in park design, but in recent decades the emphasis was on recreational programs. As veteran staffers retired, the district’s institutional memory of its own design past was beginning to fail. It might have been lost altogether had not District employees in 1987 discovered a basement vault crammed with hundreds of original documents pertaining to park projects. (These treasures now compose the Special Collections of the Chicago Park District.)
These drawings, blueprints, paintings, publications, newspaper clippings, photographs, hand-colored glass slides, negatives, as well as papers pertaining to the design and construction of the city’s classic parks was the basis for example of a joint 1991 exhibit with the Chicago Historical Society and the Morton Arboretum entitled ‘Prairie in the City: Naturalism in Chicago Parks, 1870-1940.” More important, they helped inspire, and in some cases informed, an ambitious program of restoration of and research about the architecture and landscape designs from the golden age of Chicago park-building—a real Chicago renaissance.
Typical was the work done on one of the jewels of the West Side—Columbus Park. Road builders had damaged part of it—in 1953, the nine acres at the park's southern boundary were destroyed to make way for the Eisenhower Expressway—and indifferent management and vandals compromised most of the rest. Jens Jensen disdained playground apparatus for children, for example, in favor of a circular stone bench surrounding a hearth because the ring "ring speaks of strength and friendship." As the neighborhood changed these play circles became as out of place as ballet shoes in a football locker room. They were restored in 1991, along with Jensen’s “player’s green” or outdoor stage, his "prairie river" (in fact a meandering artificial lagoon), and waterfalls and surrounding landscape.
On the North Side, one of the oldest artifacts of the city’s early parks, Lincoln Park’s Waterfowl Lagoon—it dates from the 1865 design by Swain Nelson—was recreated in 1978. The refectory built in 1908 on the banks of the South Pond included dining space; it had been financed by restaurateurs Paul and Caspar Brauer, hence its popular name, Café Brauer. The building is considered a masterpiece among the works of the underrated Prairie School architect Dwight H. Perkins. According to parks historian William Tippens, the café was popular until a state law that forbade the sale of liquor in parks left it low and dry. A new state law in the 1980 permitting such liquor sales held out the promise of the rebirth of the neglected structure as a restaurant, which was achieved in 1989 when the Lincoln Park Zoological Society in cooperation with the Chicago Park District and the Levy organization, local restaurateurs, partnered in a $4.2 million renovation. Also in Lincoln Park is the restored Rookery—more on that below—and the 1914 Warming House for skaters on the North Pond was revived in 1998, and it too now has a new life as a posh Arts & Crafts-style restaurant.
Here and there the city not only is restoring old parks but atoning for old mistakes. A good example is in Burnham Park near downtown. In 1995 the city and Park District relocated the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive from 12th to 20th. The old route had isolated the Field Museum from its fellow museums nearby; the new alignment unified what is now a Museum Campus and created 57 acres of new green space.
Just north of Jackson Park, in Burnham Park, at Promontory Point Park (55th Street Promontory), Alfred Caldwell original 1937 design not only was restored as built to mark the point’s fiftieth anniversary in 1987, it was completed, by the addition of circular stone rings used for cookouts and benches; a few years later the Point’s 1937 Field House was renovated.
The CPD’s boulevard system also has come in for attention. Suburban flight and abandonment of boulevards by the wealthy and replacement by started sadly familiar cycle of decline. Rot spread from inside out; Logan Square farthest out, survived best. Unable to keep them up, and reasoning that they had long ago lost their purpose as green avenues, the Park District relinquished control of the boulevards to the City in 1959, whose neglect only sped their decline.
A few locals appreciated the possibilities, even though the latter were dimmed after so many years of decline. Affluent young families constituting a new generation of affluent home buyers returned to the boulevards; as the 1980s started, began own beautification efforts and gradually prevailed on City Hall to step up theirs. In 1985, they convinced the Federal government to designate the best-preserved two-mile segment of the original boulevard system in Logan Square as the "Logan Square Boulevards Historic District."
Also on the CPD’s list of historic treasures is the many murals that decorated its field houses. In 2005 the district began a two-year, $376,000 restoration (augmented by like amount in corporate and private donations) of 58 period murals in Calumet, Sherman, Jefferson, Eugene, Palmer, Hamilton, Pulaski, Independence, Rutherford, and Sayre parks
Nor is the CPD the only Chicagoland institution to recover their historical parks heritage. Non-ark institutions in the city, with municipalities and park districts in the suburbs and local garden clubs have all undertaken to restore or protect historic landscapes in their care in the past 20 years. In 1995, for example, the University of Chicago set as a long-term goal the identification and restoration of several historic campus landscapes.
Preserving or restoring landscapes and park infrastructure poses the same kinds of problems that restoring buildings does. Preservation and adaptive reuse almost always cost more than many a feasible replacement. For example, the CPD planned to replace with concrete a dilapidated limestone revetment—a relic from the district’s salad days—that had long protected Hyde Park's Promontory Point until it found itself opposed by the neighborhood.
Philosophical dilemmas occasioned by restoration can be even trickier to resolve than financial ones. Old or new? Play or contemplation? Are parks for people who live nearby, or are they city-wide resources that should be equipped accordingly? These question complicate restoration decisions across the city. Like their predecessors, the young affluents who bought houses along the boulevards and their squares treasure them as backdrop for appreciating real estate and stress that preserving their historic character is paramount; their poorer neighbors often see the boulevards and squares as needed open space, and wish to see them converted into soccer fields or dog runs.
Parks get worn out. They also change—sometimes for perfectly good reasons—with changes in the neighborhoods around them. Different ethnic groups bring different traditions to the use of outdoor spaces; so do parks managers. How to maintain parks for today that also are historic artifacts? Turning the entire system into a series of museums does not work. For one thing, the city has barely enough resources to run a park system, and in any event, parks are supposed to be used, not merely admired.
Sometimes artful redesign has married past design with present improvements. A lagoon bridge in Jackson Park that dated to 1903 had been decorated with stone carvings of ship prows, water deities, and the heads of hippos and rhinos. Vandalism—some perpetrated by graffitists, some by road crews over-salting the pavement—and weather had left it a wreck. In 2002, the Chicago Department of Transportation began three-year reconstruction that included cleaning and replacing stone elements, which were re-installed on a new and widened bridge that incorporated such up-to-date amenities as sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and a pedestrian underpass.
One pressing question facing those attempting to restore the “historic” appearance of parks and park structures is, Which history? In the 1930s, Alfred Caldwell redesigned a Victorian lily pool built in 1889 at the north end of Lincoln Park Zoo at Fullerton Parkway in the Prairie style. By then nearly 50 years old, the Victorian-style ornamental pool found a new purpose in the 1950s when the Lincoln Park Zoo next door began to manage the site as habitat for breeding birds. What had come to be known as the Zoo Rookery had been renovated in the early 1960s, but 40 years later the pool was stagnant and its wooden pavilion rotting.
In May of 2000, the Rookery, a City of Chicago landmark, was officially dedicated as the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool. A $2.5 million rehabilitation was undertaken in 2001. This joint project of Lincoln Park Conservancy (LPC) and the Chicago Park District (CPD) saw the removal of the clumsy concrete and stone that had been installed in the ‘60s to protected eroded banks. Also removed were nonnative plants that compromised by Caldwell’s Midwestern motif and its role as wild bird habitat.
But why, if the lily pool/rookery was to be restored, was it done according to Caldwell’s 1930s version rather than the original? The Caldwell version was after all, a fix of an earlier version that, if age is the criterion of historic, was more “historic” than Caldwell’s. And the 1966 revision of the Caldwell revision, however clumsy it may have been, was the one that Chicagoans born after the mid-‘70s knew, and which some of them, judging from public complaints, had come to love. In the end, aesthetics, and the desire to honor one of the park district’s most talented staff, won the day.
Parks in the Hinterland
In the Chicago hinterland, Acradia still existed, if in fragmentary form. Chicagoland outside the city faced the same kinds of problems faced decades earlier by Chicago as it tried to provide green spaces for citizens. Urbanization’s progress was nearly as fast (it seemed to some) and nearly as destructive as the great Fire which had swept across the city in 1871.
The Forest Preserve System
The loss of countryside to development spurred a movement to appreciate it, much as the post-World War II building boom that leveled local historical landmarks spurred the preservation boom of the 1960s. A generation of landscape architects and parks designers saw in the dwindling tall grass and scrub forest a model for a indigenous design for a naturalized human landscape.
In some respects the peculiar conditions of the city’s growth left it unexpectedly rich in opportunities for ecological recovery. Failed subdivisions, foreclosed farms, and bankrupt estates were never developed at all, and many industrial firms bought more land than they ever used in anticipation of expansion. The U.S. Army’s arsenal outside Joliet protected nearby residents from explosions by ringing dumps with thousands of acres of land that had no other function; those acres are now the centerpiece of one of the largest prairie restorations in the nation.
By the start of the 20th century, however, citizens who occasionally raised their eyes from the ledger books saw that land in the city’s hinterland would not stay open forever. True, they guessed wrong about the causes. They feared endless population growth of the sort that had been seen in the previous half-century rather than the automobile, which would spread a smaller population across a larger territory. Nonetheless, the wisdom of preserving Chicagoland’s natural places was plain; if green space no longer existed where the people were, it would have to be provided where they would be.
Outings into the countryside became a common form of recreation for the cosmopolitan middle class. To that attraction was added social utility: green spaces offered healthful places where people might breathe clean air and thus improve the public health. A third rationale for saving bits of the Chicagoland countryside for public use was scientific. In 1897 Henry C. Cowles had joined the University of Chicago’s botany department and began studying the unique vegetation and geological history of the Indiana dunes. His interest expanded to the plant communities of the Chicago region, which he described in The Physiographic Ecology of Chicago and Vicinity: A Study of the Origin, Development, and Classification of Plant Societies (1901), a work crucial to the fledgling science of plant ecology. If Cowles could never make the Chicagoland landscape beautiful, he and his colleagues succeeded in doing the next best thing, and made it interesting.
The campaign for a forest preserve system for Cook County was mounted by activists who were socially connected and intellectually adventuresome, generalled by the indefatigable architect Dwight H. Perkins (later the first president of the Chicago Regional Planning Commission) and his confreres of the Saturday Afternoon Walking Club, who formed the nucleus in 1911 of the Forest Preserve District Association that lobbied for the state law needed to allow the acquisition of such lands for public purposes.
Forest preserves, argued proponents, offered several returns on public investment. It was a way to get a lot of parkland cheap. Green tracts would be a welcome visual amenity in an increasingly built-up megalopolis. Woods were thought that be “lungs” of the city insofar as they filtering polluted air. (A dubious claim; wooded land does more good retarding runoff and thus moderating floods.)
That large regional nature parks were a good idea was accepted among progressive elements by the turn of the 20th century. Among the recommendations of the special park commission appointed by Mayor Carter Harrison in 1903 was creation of a green belt around the city linked by scenic boulevards to the city’s own park and boulevard system. Jens Jensen and Prairie School architect Dwight Perkins are usually thought the key figures in this drive. They surveyed Chicagoland’s significant natural areas, cataloging potential park and preserve sites according to their ecological features. Several of these sites—along the Des Plaines and Little Calumet rivers and in the Skokie Marsh region—were included in the commission’s proposal for a system of “Forest Parks and Country Pleasure Roads."
Getting the system built took more than a decade. A new Outer Belt Park Commission formed by the Cook County Board needed legal authority to buy and hold lands; a bill to that end was passed by the General Assembly in 1905 but was so poorly drafted it was never implemented on the advice of the state’s attorney general. A bill to preserve some of the region’s vanishing forested lands for public use was passed in 1911, but it was declared void by the courts. A third bill, passed in 1913, allowed creation of a special purpose government to acquire and manage lands for that purpose. Its taxing power had to be approved by local voters, which Cook Countians did in 1914. Within 10 years, the new Cook County Forest Preserve District had acquired 24,000 acres of land.
The rest of the suburbanizing counties followed suit, more or less in the order in which each came to perceive that development was laying waste to a green and open countryside that locals had come to take for granted. Du Page, Will, and Kane counties had forest preserve districts before the end of the 1920s. The urge to set aside open land was not felt in some rural counties for another generation or two; Lake County set up theirs in 1958, and a sprawl-threatened McHenry set up the equivalent in 1971 in the form of a county conservation district.
The original vision was never fully realized. The 1904 report that first called for such a district in Cook County listed among the places worth saving lakeside bluffs and beaches, the valleys of the Chicago River’s North Branch and its tributaries, and the Calumet river and lake in addition to the areas that were eventually acquired. Still, even if the best was not saved, some of the rest was; today’s holding by all the districts in Chicagoland amount to more than 150,000 acres.
Today Chicagoland’s six county forest preserve districts have under protection more than 153,800 acres of land including forests, wetlands, and prairies. (The CCFPD’s more than 67,000 acres of open land is approximately 11 percent of Cook County’s land area.)
They are not parks in the familiar sense. The forest preserve pioneered in Chicagoland is a hybrid—part park and part nature preserve that in concept and management are more akin to state parks than to urban parks. While recreational facilities abound in the preserves, they support activities deemed compatible with the larger mandate to preserve nature. Parking and picnicking is usually relegated to the fringe of each property; the rest is minimally developed to support fishing and birding, hiking and cycling, horseback riding and skiing, and similar low-impact pastimes. Preserve managers over the years have been tempted into more conventional projects now and then—the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden were built on Cook County forest preserves—but on the whole the original injunction to protect and preserve the flora, fauna, and scenery of the region has been honored with a fidelity unusual in Chicagoland government.
Whatever its other virtues, the publicly-owned system of green spaces was barely sufficient for the Chicagoland area as it existed in 1920. Indeed, after three-quarters of a century, the Cook County Forest Preserve District not yet acquired all the 75,000 acres that its authorizing legislation allowed it to hold. Acquisitions that had been on the original forest preserve shopping list compiled by Dwight Perkins and his colleagues still have not been acquired; in 1985, for example, local naturalists were making the same arguments Perkins did (and with the same results) for turning the wetlands round Lake Calumet into a ecological park.
Such has been the expansion of the population that the original green belt has become more like a necktie, and calls to expand it began to be heard in the 1960s. One voice in that chorus belonged to the Openlands Project. Like the backers of the original forest preserve system, Openlands has roots in Chicago’s progressive reformers. (It started as a committee of the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago.) Later, as an independent nonprofit, became a general advocate of open space and conservation in the Chicagoland area, and played key roles in developing the Illinois Prairie Path, Goose Lake Prairie, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Old Plank Road Trail,the Illinois & Michigan Canal corridor, urban forestry, and the now-independent Friends of the Chicago River.
In 1990, Openlands released its 21st Century Open Space Plan, which, as its predecessor did in 1903, called for several large regional green reserves. And as happened nearly a century earlier, this was to be achieved by the acquisition of properties that no longer needed for their original purposes. The chances of worker insurrection having been quelled, for example, the U.S. government in the 1990s decided it no longer needed Fort Sheridan on the North Shore. Its wooded lake bluffs were the last bit of lake shore in public hands, and 259 acres of that base was transferred to the Lake County Forest Preserve District.
The District thus added to its inventory 2.5 miles of new paved and beach trails, a golf course, and Janes Ravine, one of the few remaining lakeshore ravine forests of its type. Southwest of the city, the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant outside that Will County city was declared excess federal land in 1993, and in 1996 more than 19,000 acres of the facility were set aside to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service as a federal park known as the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
Linear Parks and Trails
The Openlands plan also called for a network of more than 6,000 miles of “greenways” or linear parks and trails. As trucks took over more and more of the railroads’ freight business, rail lines became as redundant as the stagecoach lines and canals they had replaced. The rights-of-way of many an abandoned rail line have reverted to public use as recreational paths or “linear parks.” The McHenry Prairie Trail runs 26 miles from Algonquin? to the Wisconsin border; its southern stretch uses the track bed abandoned by the Chicago and North Western railroad. The Great Western Trail in Kane County runs for 14 miles from St. Charles to Sycamore on the DeKalb County line within the right-of-way of the former Chicago and Great Western Railroad. Hundreds of miles of such trails now crisscross Chicagoland.
In the early years of the 20th century Chicago was a leader in the invention of the neighborhood park designed for healthful recreation. Chicagoland was still inventing new kinds of parks sixty years later. The old Illinois and Michigan Canal and its associated landscape in the 1960s was hardly a park at all in the familiar sense. The corridor consisted of a few relics of canal days, but mainly declining factory towns and smelly rivers. The canal itself mostly filled in, its locks and related facilities crumbling.
Openlands Project thinkers saw potential in it nonetheless. Here, the theme would not be nature but place. The experience of this jumble of sites—it includes state parks, nature preserves, industrial relics, restored landmarks, recreational trails—would be unified by historical sense. The canal that had made rivers towns like Lockport rich promised to do so again, only instead of cargo it could attract traffic in tourists.
Civic leaders were persuaded that the I&M offered a way to rebuild economies vitiated by the loss of factory jobs; corporate leaders were persuaded that enhancing the area’s under-appreciated recreational resources would enhancing the region’s quality of life and make it easier to hire and retain skilled workers.
A group of business leaders in 1981 formed the Upper Illinois Valley Association (the predecessor of today’s Canal Corridor Association). The organization pushed for federal designation as the nation’s first “Heritage Corridor.” It was a nebulous concept, melding as it did historic preservation, natural resource conservation, recreation, and economic development. The idea was a long time finding friends, in part because it was so new, and in part because some locals feared it would bring new regulations that would encumber the use of their property.
In 1984 Congress authorized the I&M Canal corridor as the first National Heritage Corridor. This not-quite-national park enjoyed the imprimatur of the NPS but was essentially locally funded and managed. It offers the visitor a little bit of everything. The Canal Corridor Association calls it “a splendid living history museum of American enterprise, technological invention, ethnic diversity, and cultural creativity,” and who should know better?
Special-Purpose Parks and Gardens
Botanic gardens, arboreta, and other specialty gardens are parks of a sort, and Chicago has several very good ones. There are Japanese gardens of some quality in the region. Chicago’s Jackson Park is the site of the Osaka Garden on Wooded Island. Lombard maintains the 8.5 acre Plum Memorial Park Lilacia Park, a gift to the public in 1927 by Colonel William R. Plum, a prominent Lombardian; it boasts 200 fragrant varieties of Lilac bushes, which is why it was renamed Lilacia Park In 1929.
The University of Chicago treats its entire campus as a botanical garden. Working with scientists at the Morton Arboretum since the early 1980s, the grounds function as a real-world laboratory to test and disease-resistant elms and new commercial nursery varieties. Little goes on in Hyde Park that does not have education as its goal; trees and shrubs and flowers are being identified by species with placards for the edification of passersby, as they are at a conventional botanical garden.
The Ladd Arboretum was developed by mainly volunteer effort as a living memorial to Evanston's past and present leaders, one of whom was Edward Ladd, local newspaper publisher and editor. The Arboretum stretches along a narrow, three-quarter mile segment of reclaimed land between McCormick Boulevard and the North Shore Channel.
Two Chicagoland botanical institutions have achieved national stature. The oldest is the Morton Arboretum outside Lisle. That is where Joy Morton, of Morton Salt Co., built his summer estate, Thornhill. An avid amateur arborist. Morton, was inspired by a visit to the famous Arnold Arboretum in Boston in 1927 to convert 175 acres of his estate into a similar outdoor museum and laboratory of trees.
It was that seed from which today’s Morton Arboretum grew—1,700 acres (500 acres of plant collections and gardens, and 900 acres of woods and lakes) that are home to 3,300 different plant species. Morton is known mainly for its research and education—it includes laboratory facilities and the Sterling Morton Library, an outstanding collection of rare books on landscape architecture, plus several special collections on Midwestern landscape history that includes papers of such notables as Jens Jensen. O. C. Simonds, and May Theilgaard Watts.
At the other end of Chicagoland is the Chicago Botanic Garden. The Chicago Horticultural Society in the 1963 needed a place to build its planned botanical garden, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County owned land—the northernmost reaches of the old Skokie lagoons, north of Dundee Road in Glencoe—that it didn’t know what to do with. The lagoons were frequently spoiled by runoff and treated sewage from upstream carried into the garden grounds by the Skokie River. A deal was done and ground-breaking took place in 1965.
After extensive revision to the landscape—including routing the Skokie River around the lagoons, which eliminated the pollution problem—the garden opened in 1968. Today is it s a showcase, of every kind of gardening feasible in these latitudes, including stream and prairie restorations. Visitors may learn from 23 gardens and three native habitat areas on a total of 385 acres of land and water that comprises nine islands, six miles of shoreline, 15 acres of prairie, and 100 acres of woods. The CBG attracts 00 million visitors each year—enough that the CBG likes to call itself the world’s most visited botanical garden—probably an unprovable claim but a plausible one. ●