Combining Business and Pleasure

Vol. II No. 2 - WINTER 1989

By: Sandee A. Remis

EHS members present at the General Meeting in October voted to change the basis of our membership year from “anniversary date of joining” to “calendar year,” a much simpler method of keeping our records straight. The by-laws now read: “The membership year shall be from January 1st to December 31st to coincide with the calendar year. Members in arrears more than six months shall be removed from the membership rolls.

Any new member whose application and dues are received in the period September 1st through December 31st of any year shall be a paid member in good standing through December 31st of the following year.”

EHS members also voted in Gloria L. Evenson and G. Mark Harding to fill two of three vacancies on the Board created by the resignations of Don Anderson, Larry D’Urso and Fritz Huchting. Due to the untimely death of Ardell Nickels, we will now need to fill two more positions. Nominations are welcome.

The highlight of the meeting was a slide show, “A Breath of Fresh Air - Chicago’s Neighborhood Parks of the Progressive Reform Era, 1900-1925,” presented by archivist John Smith and Julie Sniderman of the Chicago Park District’s new Preservation Planning Division. The show was part of a large exhibit displayed at the Cultural Center of the Chicago Public Library until November 11.

The exhibit was engendered by the 1986 discovery of a rich archival collection of architectural and landscape drawings, prints and photographs in a sub-basement vault of the Park District’s administration building. The records, believed to have been placed there soon after the 1934 consolidation of the 22 park districts, had been forgotten for over 50 years.

It was fascinating to see how the ideas of architects and designers such as the Olmsted Brothers, Daniel Burnham and Jens Jensen evolved from rough preliminary sketches to full-blown plans with planting lists.

It was interesting to find out that Washington Park once included a sheep meadow and that Lincoln Park stands on land once used as a cemetery (bodies were exhumed and reburied elsewhere when concern of cholera was raised because of the shallowness of the graves). Lincoln Park Zoo, by the way, started with the donation of a pair of swans from Central Park in New York.

It was educational to learn that Chicago’s first playgrounds were established by settlement houses such as Jane Addams Hull House, generally on land donated or lent by philanthropic citizens. After hearing the ghastly story of how tenement children amused themselves by fishing for rats between the slats of wooden sidewalks, it was easy to understand why social reformers were so adamant in their efforts to create healthy environments for play.

Before the development of the neighborhood park form, the few parks which existed were large regional “pleasure grounds” with ornamental planting and winding sidewalks, far away from the overcrowded immigrant neighborhoods of the rapidly growing, industrialized city.

Chicago’s first neighborhood parks provided for both the passive recreation afforded by traditional parks and the active recreation advocated by reformers. Chicago’s three park commissions are credited for including nationally reputed designers in the process of developing a small park form which transcended the initial playground prototypes and set a precedent for the development of neighborhood parks throughout the U.S.

These working-class parks were often the only source of such services as bathing facilities, hot meals sold at cost, English lessons for adults and children, vocational training, recreation, athletics and social events. They were also often the only clean places in the neighborhood where one could rest and enjoy a lovely landscape after 12 hours a day of factory work. They truly provided “a breath of fresh air” for the vast numbers of immigrants in pursuit of the “American dream.”

The need for a touch of nature and “breathing spots” in densely populated areas is as great today as it was 90 years ago. Edgewater activists fought just as hard as early reformers when it came to saving the Viatorian mansions on our lakefront and establishing Berger Park.

Today the Chicago Park District is striving to preserve this important legacy of progressive reform, largely through the efforts of its newly created Preservation Planning Division. We wish John and Julie success in their endeavors and extend our thanks to them for sharing a part of their exhibit with us.