Berger Park—result of ECC’s long campaign to save lakefront mansions from developers
From its earliest days the Edgewater Community Council (ECC) had been accutely aware of Edgewater’s lack of adequate park land. In the 1960s, it sought to have the Chicago Park District complete the original plan for Senn Park and to re-acquire the property at the northwest corner of Ridge and Clark. It also sought to ensure that the public’s access to the street-end beaches was not impeded by the construction of high rise buildings.
Given this early interest, it was, therefore, not surprising that it was ECC that initiated the campaign to ensure that the last underdeveloped parcel on Sheridan Road was preserved as open space and developed for public use—and not developed as another highrise complex.
The property in question was a 3.3 acre parcel on the lake in the 6200 block of north Sheridan Road. It was long known as the Viatorian property because it was owned by the Viatorian Fathers, a Roman Catholic religious order which used to its originally three mansions as housing for its priests and seminary students. When the north and largest and most architecturally significant of the three mansions was demolished because it was no longer needed, a warning was sounded that the other two mansions might not long remain.
When it was later learned that the property was for sale for 3 million dollars, ECC acted promptly. On June 1, 1979, the Board passed a resolution calling upon the city “to act decisively and imaginatively to acquire this most needed property.” Thus began a campaign to save not only the land but the mansions on them as well. In retrospect, the campaign turned out to be three campaigns: one to obtain the land, one to save the south mansion, and one to save the north mansion.
By letterwriting and petition drives, testimony before the Park District Board, community meetings, and enlisting the support of elected officials, ECC was able to achieve the first objective. In 1981, the Chicago Park District finally was able to purchase the property. Then it wanted to demolish both mansions and their coach houses and construct a conventional field house. ECC, with wide community support, was appalled and objected vigorously. The Park District then agreed to have an independent firm assess the feasibility of renovating the structures for public uses. The study, which was released in April 1982 recommended that both mansions and their respective coach houses “be stabilized and retained by the Park District for future public use.”
Buoyed by the study, ECC established a special Viatorian Committee and conducted a comprehensive survey of activities members of the community wanted in the new, yet to be developed park. Many ideas were expressed, but there was a consensus that the outdoor park be developed for passive recreational use.
Eventually, the Park District announced the availability of $650,000 in bonds for renovation of the south mansion. The north mansion was slated for demolition. ECC objected and campaigned for the north mansion as well.
In October 1993 a major breakthrough came as a result of a meeting between the Superintendent of the Park District and members of ECC’s Viatorian Committee. The Park District agreed to put its plans for demolition in abeyance until after completion of the south mansion, during which the Viatorian committee would seek sources of funding for restoration of the north mansion, and it agreed to rethink plans for the south mansion to allow space for community use.
Thus began the final and most difficult of the three campaigns, for involved not only a major fund-raising effort but the responsibility for overseeing the renovation work itself. In addition, the campaign became one not only saving the north mansion but saving it to become something: a north side cultural center.
The original deadline of July 1984 set by the Park District was extended 12 months to allow additional time for the funding package to be put together. The second deadline was met: the money was raised.
In May 1985, ECC’s Board approved the incorporation of the North Lakeside Cultural Center (NLCC) as a separate organization to renovate the north mansion and operate it as a cultural center. Subsequently NLCC and the Chicago Park District entered into a formal agreement that provided that NLCC would renovate the north mansion and have the right to operate it as a cultural center for 25 years.
The South Mansion, operated by the Park District opened its doors to the public in July 1986; the cultural center in the north mansion did not open until the fall of 1988. With the landscaping of the grounds, which came last, ECC’s major objectives had been achieved: another highrise development on Sheridan Road had been prevented; additional open space on the lakefront had been made available for public use; and two mansions that reflected Edgewater’s glorious past were not only saved for the community’s visual enjoyment, they were saved for community use. Led by ECC, Edgewater fought and won for itself a truly unique urban park, now known as Berger Park
The above is a slightly modified version of an article that appeared in the ECC News Special 35 Anniversary Supplement Part 1 (Winter/Spring 1996)