Monday, July 19, 2021

A landmarked White Castle and the development of East Cermak Road

Cermak Road looking west at Calumet Avenue, 1933

The neighborhood around Glessner House possesses many landmark buildings, ranging from Gilded Age mansions to large manufacturing plants. Perhaps the most unusual, and definitely the smallest, is White Castle #16 at 43 E. Cermak Road, designated a Chicago landmark in 2011. In this article, we will look at the development of East Cermak Road (originally Twenty-second Street); the founding of White Castle, which is celebrating its centennial in 2021; and the history of White Castle #16, constructed in 1930.

The Development of Twenty-second Street

Twenty-second Street, which formed the southern boundary of the exclusive Prairie Avenue residential district, always functioned as a commercial strip to support the residents living to the north. The street was lined with dry goods stores, bakeries, butchers, and grocers, along with tailors, dressmakers, shoemakers, milliners, and jewelers. Sullivan’s Dancing Academy (later Metcalf’s South Side Academy) was located on the south side of Twenty-second east of Michigan.

George A. Seaverns completed a series of 28 stores with flats (apartments) above in 1882. The buildings, which cost $250,000 to construct, occupied the entire block between Wabash and State on the south side of Twenty-second. The flats featured cherry wood trim, fine gas fixtures, private bathrooms, hot water boilers, and floors lined with two layers of felting to deaden the noise between units. The stores were considered the finest on the street and featured large plate glass display windows. 

Southern Hotel

The largest building for years was the stone-clad Southern Hotel at the northwest corner of Wabash and Twenty-second. In 1892, the much-larger 10-story Lexington Hotel was constructed at the northeast corner of Michigan and Twenty-second, in preparation for the large influx of visitors to the city during the World’s Columbian Exposition. That same year also saw the construction of Chicago’s first “L” – the South Side Rapid Transit (now the Green Line) – built on elevated tracks that ran above the alley between Wabash and State. The Twenty-second Street station, located on the south side of the street, opened in June 1892.

The Neighborhood Begins to Change

Wabash and State, along with the streets to the west, always had a very different character than the prime residential streets to the east – Michigan, Indiana, Prairie, and Calumet. In the 1880s, Chicago’s infamous red-light district, known as the Levee, established itself along State, Dearborn, and Clark, between Nineteenth and Twenty-second streets. Although the Levee was shut down in 1912, gambling continued to thrive in the area, which also became replete with speakeasies during Prohibition. The Southern Hotel became the “notorious” Cadillac Hotel, and Al Capone established his headquarters in the nearby Lexington Hotel in 1928. (Remember when Geraldo Rivera opened Capone’s vault in the building on live TV in 1986?)

Looking north on Michigan Avenue toward the Lexington Hotel, circa 1910

The two-story frame building that stood on the present site of White Castle #16 originally bore the address of 165 Twenty-second Street. Prior to the 1909 renumbering of Chicago streets, address numbers began with 1 closest to Lake Michigan and then increased going west. In 1909, the building was renumbered 43 E. Twenty-second Street. A meat market occupied the building in the late 19th century, but by the early 1900s, slightly more questionable businesses could be found there.

A 1905 advertisement shows the building occupied by the Eagle Medicinal Wine Company, which bottled and distributed its “Dr. Young’s Elixir of Life” that appears to have been little more than port wine being sold for medicinal purposes. The product promised to serve as “a body builder, strength creator, and blood maker for old people, puny children, and weak, run down persons.” Just a year later, Newhouse, promoted as “America’s greatest palmist and psychic reader” was offering $5.00 readings at the location for just 50 cents.

The Modern Street Takes Shape

By the early 1920s, the growing number of automobiles in Chicago required a major reevaluation of arterial streets to relieve increasing amounts of traffic. Several streets were widened during the decade including both Indiana and Michigan avenues. Twenty-second Street was seen as essential to the redevelopment of the near South Side, and the City Council adopted an ordinance to increase its width from 66 to 120 feet. With large buildings like the Lexington Hotel standing on the north side of Twenty-second street, the decision was made to demolish the smaller buildings on the south side of the street and then redevelop it with large office buildings, hotels, and apartment houses.

Demolition work was underway by 1923 when the photograph above was taken. It shows Twenty-second Street looking west at Prairie Avenue; buildings in the foreground have been reduced to rubble. The work proceeded at a slow pace and by 1926 the city had run out of funds to complete the demolitions and proceed with the street widening. By the time the work was completed, the country was just entering the Great Depression and the anticipated large-scale redevelopment never materialized. (Twenty-second street was renamed Cermak Road on March 6, 1933, just nine days after Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak died of gunshot wounds sustained three weeks earlier in Florida while meeting with President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. The street was selected as it ran through the neighborhoods of Pilsen and Lawndale, both of which were home to large numbers of Czech Americans).

The street widening created another issue. The lots on the south side of Twenty-second Street were originally 85 feet deep. After the widening, the lots were only 31 feet deep, making reuse possibilities limited, especially since the lots backed up to an alley running parallel to Twenty-second. However, the shallow lot at the southeast corner of Twenty-second Street and Wabash Avenue proved ideal for the construction of a White Castle with its small building footprint.

White Castle

White Castle System of Eating Houses, Inc., the first fast-food chain in America, was founded in Wichita, Kansas in 1921 by J. Walter Anderson and Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram. The name was selected to convey a very specific message – White denoted cleanliness, while Castle conveyed a sense of strength and permanence. Ingram was said to have been inspired by Chicago’s Water Tower for the basic design of the buildings.

Although seen today as just one of many fast-food chains in America, the founding of White Castle had a profound impact on American’s eating habits. Prior to White Castle, the hamburger had a lowly reputation and was seen mostly as “carnival” food. The experimentation by White Castle with innovations including how to cook the meat for maximum flavor and serving it on warm buns instead of between slices of bread elevated the hamburger into the most ubiquitous sandwich in the United States.

The company promised speed in filling orders and also popularized the concept of “take out” food, offering only a few stools in their stands and encouraging customers to “buy ‘em by the sack.” Equally important, White Castle standardized everything it did, assuring the customer the same experience regardless of which location they went to. This included the menu, appearance of its employees, and the programmatic architecture, first utilizing white painted concrete block, then white glazed brick, and finally white porcelain steel panels, for the exterior. 

A focus on cleanliness was a relatively new and novel concept in the industry, especially since the kitchens were open and visible to customers. White tile and stainless steel were used on the interiors. The standard extended to the employees as well. An employee checklist from 1931 entitled “Before Going on Duty” noted 24 items from head to foot that were to be checked before being seen by customers. These included everything from “cap should cover hair” and “correct bad breath” to “no patches in trousers seat” and “clean fingernails.”

Extensive marketing was another part of White Castle’s success. Ingram believed the company had “performed an important public service by legitimizing the hamburger as a quick, inexpensive, tasty food fit for all income classes, not just the working class” and this was reflected in the extensive newspaper advertising. Coupons and special offers were regularly featured such as the advertisement below from 1934 promoting five hamburgers for ten cents.

During 1921, several stands were opened in Wichita. By 1930 additional stands had opened in Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Louisville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Columbus Ohio, Detroit, and New York City. The year 1929 saw the opening of nine White Castles in Chicago. 

White Castle #16

There were fifteen White Castle stands in Chicago by July of 1930, when the building permit for #16 was issued. (The company numbered each stand within a city based on the order in which they were constructed). Chicago stands were all located in working-class neighborhoods on the West and South sides and were situated on prominent corners near streetcar transfer points or elevated train stations. Lloyd W. Ray, construction superintendent for White Castle, was responsible for the design of the stand, although Lewis E. Russell, a Chicago architect, was listed as the architect of record. The nearly identical design of all the stands allowed them to be built cheaply and efficiently. Stand #16 opened on September 1, 1930, just six weeks after the permit had been issued; the cost was $4,500.  

White Castle #16, circa 1930

The design for #16 called for the use of porcelain-steel panels, which were first introduced on the stands in 1928. Delays in obtaining the panels resulted in a switch to the white glazed brick that had been used since 1925. A small amount of green and beige glazed brick was used to highlight window and door openings, copings, buttresses, and the base of the building. Leaded glass filled the upper portion of several windows. The ubiquitous tower anchored the building to its corner site, and gooseneck light fixtures ensured the building would be well lit at night. 

Cermak Road looking west in 1933; red arrow shows location of White Castle #16

White Castle prospered throughout the Great Depression, but World War II brought both supply and manpower shortages. Fish sandwiches and baked beans were offered in place of the hard-to-obtain beef, and Postum replaced coffee. For the first time, the company hired female counter attendants. The number of stands nationwide dropped from 130 in 1941 to just 87 in 1945. Chicago #16 closed its door in October 1944, and the building was sold the next month to two women who continued to operate it as a food stand. It housed various businesses through the years, including a locksmith and key shop. 

White Castle #16 prior to restoration, 2010

In 1982, Rocky Gupta purchased the structure and opened his Chef Luciano Kitchen & Chicken restaurant in the building and the adjacent storefront to the east. In 2010, he undertook an extensive restoration of the White Castle building, replacing missing elements such as the crenellated tower, repairing the white glazed brick, and installing reproduction exterior light fixtures. The building was designated a Chicago landmark the next year.

White Castle #16 as it appears today

Today, the building survives as the oldest intact White Castle stand in Chicago and one of the oldest stands in the United States. Only used for its original purpose for 14 years, the building endured decades of reuse and poor maintenance before being rescued by the current owner who brought it back to life. And, by coincidence, the company (still owned and operated by the Ingram family) has maintained a presence at the intersection for decades, the current White Castle occupying a location catty-corner to the original.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Glessner House Docents Celebrate 50 Years

Marian Despres addressing the first docent class, June 12, 1971

On Saturday, June 12, 2021, nearly 90 people gathered in the courtyard of Glessner House to celebrate a milestone in our history – the 50th anniversary of the docent program. Since 1971, volunteer docents have led tours of the house for hundreds of thousands of visitors, sparking excitement in architecture, history, and design. In honor of all our docents, past and present, we present a brief history of the early years of the program, which had a significant impact on Glessner House, the City of Chicago, and cities across the country.

Glessner House was saved from demolition in 1966 by a small group of architects and preservationists, including Marian Despres, who organized the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation specifically to purchase the building. As the organization worked on building repairs and repurposing the rooms into galleries and meeting spaces, it began hosting functions to introduce people to the house and raise awareness of its importance. Within a few years, people started showing up at the front door looking for a tour.

By the fall of 1970, the number of individuals seeking a tour exceeded the capacity of the staff, which at the time consisted of the newly hired, full-time executive secretary, Jeanette Fields, and her half-time assistant, Lynn Anderson. In response to the growing demand for tours, Fields and Despres developed a program to train volunteers in leading tours of the house – and beyond.

Marian Despres and Jeanette Fields

Jeanette Fields was well-suited to the task at hand. In 1968, she had been hired for a public relations position with the architectural firm of Fridstein & Fitch. She developed a series of bus tours of Chicago architecture, which were led by members of the firm. The offering was the first of its kind in the city, awakening residents to the architectural heritage around them, much of which was threatened with demolition at the time. The following year, when the American Institute of Architects held its international conference in Chicago to celebrate the centennial of the organization, Fields was asked to organize similar tours for attendees.

Marian Despres was the newly appointed chair of the Board of Directors when Fields came to Glessner House in 1970. The daughter of prominent Chicago architect Alfred S. Alschuler, Despres had grown up with a deep appreciation and understanding of architecture, and the impact local architects had in the development of what became known as the Chicago School of Architecture. She had volunteered as a tour guide during the 1969 AIA conference and saw how popular the architectural tours proved to be.

Additionally, Despres toured Manhattan with the well-known architecture critic, Henry Hope Reed, Jr. (later the first curator of Central Park). A study of docent programs revealed that although they were commonly done for museums and single historic sites, the idea of training docents to give tours using the whole city was new. Despres approached the newly formed Illinois Arts Council with the idea, and in January 1971, the Council provided a grant of $5,000 to develop the docent training program.

A steering committee was formed, consisting of Despres and Fields, Kenneth Englund, a former teacher on the staff of the Illinois Arts Council, and Barbara Wriston, director of museum education at the Art Institute of Chicago. Leading architects and architectural historians in Chicago were engaged as instructors, including Carl Condit, Fred Koeper, Wilbert Hasbrouck, and Paul Sprague. Docents would be trained to lead tours of Glessner House as well as the Chicago School buildings in the Loop.

Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1971

Notices of the training program appeared in early March and dozens of applications were received. After a vigorous interview process, 36 individuals were selected for the training which would be held on Saturdays over the course of two months (later expanded). Once certified, docents would be asked to give one-half day of service a week for a year.

1971 class on the steps of the Chicago Public Library

Classes began on April 10 and consisted of lectures, tours, and a series of papers to be prepared. There were strenuous requirements in the areas of reading, writing, and speaking. A total of 33 students completed the course, graduating on the north (Randolph St.) steps of the Chicago Public Library (now the Cultural Center) on June 12, 1971. Fields, a pro at public relations, selected the highly visible site, and numerous reporters and TV cameras were on hand to document the historic event. David Stahl, a representative of Mayor Daley, gave the graduation speech. Immediately after the ceremony, Bob Irving, a graduate of the first class, led the first official walking tour of downtown buildings.

Bob Irving (at left) leading his first tour, June 12, 1971

Tours of both Glessner House and downtown were offered four days a week; the cost was $1.00. By the end of 1971, nearly 3,000 people had taken a tour, with about half coming from Chicago, and the remaining half ranging from suburbanites to international visitors.

A docent council was created to plan and organize the tours consisting of architect John Thorpe, advertising copywriter Linda Legner, IIT professor Bob Irving, public school teachers Gwen Pittard and Barbara Wright Siebel, and John Ford. In response to the popularity of the two tours offered, the council immediately planned for expanded offerings. The first additional tour featured the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park (this predated the formation of what is now the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust).

Name badge for Bunny Selig, a graduate of the 1971 class. Docents were awarded their "big button" after giving 20 hours of tours.

The second docent class numbered 44, selected from hundreds of eager applicants. At the graduation in May 1972, it was noted that the program was believed to be the “nation’s only architectural guide training course.” The model was soon copied by other cities including Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, amongst others. By the time the fourth class graduated in April 1974, more than 200 docents had been trained, and a total of 17 walking and bus tours were offered in the city and suburbs. That year saw more than 5,100 people tour Glessner House, with another 5,000 attending events there. Over 13,000 people participated in the various architectural tours, and slide lectures were offered to countless students in Chicago Public School classrooms.

A special nine-week course, “Interpreting the Historic House Museum” was developed in early 1975, led by education director John Craib-Cox. This special course was in response to those who were interested in giving tours specifically of Glessner House. By that time, the Glessner family had returned many original furnishings, the first rooms were being restored, and the surrounding Prairie Avenue Historic District was being developed, under the guidance of Ruth Moore Garbe. The course examined house architect H. H. Richardson, the Glessner family, their collection of furniture and decorative arts, and the history and architecture of Prairie Avenue. After Chicago’s oldest building, Clarke House, was moved to the district and restored, docents were trained to give tours of that building as well.

Tour group on Prairie Avenue, 1977

By 1994, the mission of the Chicago Architecture Foundation had expanded so dramatically that the decision was made to spin off Glessner House as its own entity, to focus exclusively on the house and its surrounding neighborhood. Many docents continued to give tours for both the Foundation (now the Chicago Architecture Center) and Glessner House, and new docents were trained at the house. An annual docent training class takes place each year over five Saturday mornings; for more information, click here.

A highlight of the 50th anniversary celebration of the docent program on June 12, 2021, was a tribute to Bob Irving, the one member of the original 1971 class that has given tours of Glessner House continuously for a half century. Friends and colleagues funded a special project to recreate one of the missing pieces of furniture in the house – the standing screen in the dining room – which will be installed this summer. To learn more about Bob Irving, including what former student (and President) Bill Clinton had to say about him in his autobiography, My Life, read this blog article from 2011, when Irving was honored for 40 years of service.

Docents, past and present, gathered at Glessner House, June 12, 2021

Fifty years after the graduation of our first class, docents continue to serve as our “front-line workers,” welcoming guests to Glessner House, and sharing our many engaging stories of the house, its family, and its preservation. We salute them as the docent program marks its milestone anniversary, and we look forward to their continued service to Glessner House in the years and decades ahead!

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Chicago Women's Park and Gardens - Part III

In Part I of our series, we looked at the early history of the site now occupied by the Women’s Park, including the houses that originally stood there. In Part II, we examined the various proposals created through the years to transform the four-acre parcel of land south of Glessner House into a site to exhibit architectural fragments and interpret Chicago history. Part III, the final installment in the series, starts in the mid-1990s, when the redevelopment of the surrounding area into a desirable residential neighborhood at long last brought the park plans to fruition.

1996 – National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum

In 1981, an organization known as the Vietnam Veterans Art Group was formed with the purpose of providing exhibition opportunities for veterans of the Vietnam War and those impacted by the conflict. The exhibition toured the U.S. for many years, and in 1995 returned to Chicago, settling into a temporary space in the Prairie District Lofts at 1727 S. Indiana Avenue.

The following year, the City of Chicago donated the former Swiss Products buildings at 1801 S. Indiana Avenue to the Group, along with $1,000,000 to renovate the structure, which had sat largely vacant for twenty years. The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum opened by mid-summer, combining permanent pieces with temporary exhibitions. A noteworthy permanent installation, entitled “Above and Beyond,” was unveiled in 2001 above the central atrium and consisted of 58,226 dog tags representing every American casualty in the War.

The Museum struggled financially and by 2007 rumors spread that it was planning to sell the building, possibly for reuse as a nightclub. The City, with its significant investment intervened, and in time operations stabilized. In 2012, by which time the museum had been renamed the National Veterans Art Museum (to include work by veterans of all wars), it was announced that it would be moving out of the building and relocating to 4041 N. Milwaukee Avenue in the Portage Park neighborhood. At that time, the entire building was turned over for use as the park fieldhouse.

(NOTE: Café V opened in a ground floor space of the building in July 1997. It was replaced by Café Society in 2001 which operated until 2015, when Spoke & Bird opened in the space.)

1997 – A New Park for Prairie Avenue: Growing with a Community for the Future
In April 1997, several city officials including Mayor Daley’s Chief of Staff, Terry Teele, toured the Glessner and Clarke Houses, and surrounding Prairie Avenue Historic District. As a result of that visit, Prairie Avenue House Museums (the name under which the two houses were operating at the time), engaged the City Design Center of the College of Architecture and the Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago to prepare a comprehensive plan for what was then known simply as Prairie Avenue Park, to make it “the center of life and activity for a newly invigorated Near South Side.”

The goals of the plan were to provide greenspace for new residents moving into the area, broaden the appeal and access of the park and the Historic District, and to maximize public resources through creative local collaborations. The price tag to implement the plan was $1.4 million with several key elements quite different from the park as ultimately built. The Prairie Avenue side of the park, accessed by six entrances, was to feature an athletic field, seating niches, and the historic footprints of the lost houses. On Indiana Avenue, the main feature was a stage with theater seating, a ticketing kiosk, and restrooms.

October 1997 – The Hillary Rodham Clinton Park is dedicated
Although the park was ultimately not built according to the plan, sufficient interest had been generated to proceed with next steps. Lois Weisberg, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, developed the idea to name the park in honor of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who would be coming to Chicago in October to celebrate her 50th birthday (having been born and raised in Chicago and Park Ridge).

Plans were quickly put into place, including the removal of the controversial monument to the Battle of Fort Dearborn, which had been standing in the park for a decade. Just five days before the park dedication, the statue was removed and put into storage, where it remains to this date. (NOTE: The statue, traditionally known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre Statue, was recently identified as one of 41 statues to be reviewed by the Chicago Monuments Project. Its website notes that it was “conceived in a sensationalist, luridly violent mode (and) was long criticized by American Indian activists.”)

Dedication of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Women’s Park of Chicago took place on October 27, 1997, one day after Clinton’s birthday, and was part of a day-long “extravaganza” of events around the city in her honor. The hour-long ceremony commenced at 1:30pm and included classical and jazz music performed by the Avalon String Quartet and Samara, and remarks by Mayor Richard M. Daley, Maggie Daley, and Lois Weisberg. After Clinton spoke, she presented bulbs for the pink Hillary Rodham Clinton tulip, removed from the White House gardens. Open house tours of the Glessner and Clarke Houses followed the ceremony, and Clinton was presented with a copy of the book about Glessner House authored by Elaine Harrington. In a thank you note sent afterwards, Clinton noted, “It was a day I will treasure always, and one so special it could have happened only in Chicago.”

By this point, the concept plan for the park had been significantly reworked from that developed just a few months earlier, eliminating the athletic field, stage and seating, and house footprints, instead focusing the design completely on landscaping. New features included a central rose garden (a nod to the famous rose garden at the White House), and the incorporation of the historic coach house behind the Keith House at 1900 S. Prairie Avenue, to serve as a venue for art exhibits and educational activities.

First Lady Hillary Clinton with Glessner House Program Director Micki Leventhal

A 36-member Women’s Advisory Committee was appointed to continue work on the design and interpretation of the park. Local representatives included Marcy and Traci Baim (owners of the Keith House), and Micki Leventhal, Program Director at Glessner House.

2000 – The Park begins to take shape
Mayor Richard M. Daley’s interest in gardening and significant landscaping initiative, known as the Great Gardens Program, were key factors in making the park a reality. His administration instituted the planting of trees and median strips, and the greening of the roof on City Hall, so it was no surprise when he pushed for the completion of the park, located just a few blocks south of his Indiana Avenue townhouse.

Landscape architect Mimi McKay noted that “this is a small landscape on a human scale. The buildings surrounding it contribute a more gardenlike feeling, reminiscent of a home setting; and unlike the more formal Chicago parks, the Women’s Park is extremely plant intensive, and that is what makes it so distinctive.” The design was sensitive to Clarke House, which had been moved to the park in 1977. To the north, a meadow paid homage to the original open prairie; to the south, plans for heirloom vegetable gardens were instead revised to provide plots for residents to cultivate their own vegetables, in the spirit of the Clarke family.

Tannys Langdon, the project architect, noted the overall character of the park. “We are making places here, not objects that decorate the space.” A key feature of the design is the curvilinear path around the park perimeter, created as a metaphor representing a woman’s movement in and out of traditional roles over a lifetime. (Plans to install 400 plaques in the sidewalk with the names of women who made significant contributions to Chicago’s history were never realized. The women and their achievements, however, are recorded in the biographical dictionary, Women Building Chicago, 1790-1990, edited by Rima Schultz and Adele Hast.)

To offset the winding path, a quiet and contemplative central fountain, set within a garden room enclosed with raised brick beds, was created to represent domestic achievement and “the thousands of small, homely acts that provide a steady center to so many lives.” Gravel paths were carefully arranged to provide easy navigation of the park and were lined with paver bricks repurposed from the alley that originally bisected the park. A small open-air summerhouse was envisioned for the northeast corner of the park, but only the base was ever constructed.

2002 – What is the name of the park??

Work on the park was completed during 2000 and 2001. But by early 2002, visitors noted that the signs with Clinton’s name had been removed, and the City was referring to it simply as the Women’s Park. When pressed on the issue, a city official noted that the name was “up in the air.” Approximately $500,000 of the $2.175 million cost was needed to finish the project, and the city was considering naming opportunities to raise the remaining funds. It was also noted that the Chicago Park District had a rule in place forbidding the naming of parks after living individuals – however, this park was owned and managed by the City, not the Park District. Rumors circulated that a rift between the Daleys and Clintons had brought about the removal of the name. Eventually the name Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens of Chicago was officially adopted.

2003-2004 – A playhouse, birdhouses, and interpretive panels

During the Taste of Chicago in 2003, three children’s playhouses were created and put on display; at the end of the Taste, they were auctioned off to benefit HomeAid Chicago. The three houses were designed to represent a typical Chicago bungalow, a Victorian house, and the Clarke House. Greg Thomas of McClier Architects designed the structures, and they were fabricated by Summit Homes. The Clarke House playhouse found its way to the Women’s Park where it was installed immediately to the south of the real Clarke House. It was greatly enjoyed by children for more than a decade, but its deteriorated condition resulted in its demolition in August 2014.

TOP: "For Wild Birds Only" by Teresa Kier
BOTTOM: "Chicago Cultural Center" by Department of Cultural Affairs Tourism Volunteers

In 2004, the City of Chicago hosted an exhibit in the park entitled “For the Birds: an amazing exhibition of birdhouse dwellings by Chicago artists and architects.” A total of 67 birdhouses were created by artists, architects, and designers, and were placed throughout the park and inside Clarke House. The exhibit ran from June 15 through October 15, 2004, and a special commemorative booklet was produced with a photo of each piece of “functional art” noting the title and artist. At the end of the exhibit, the birdhouses were auctioned off, although one remains in the park to this day.

That same year, the decision was made to replace the interpretive panels along the Prairie Avenue side of the park, which were showing their age after having been in place more than 20 years. Rather than focus on panels that each discussed one specific house, the new panels gave a more comprehensive history of Prairie Avenue. Four panels showed the prominent lost houses, and four additional panels provided a timeline from 1812 through the present day. Two panels discussed the interiors of the houses and the role of servants in operating them, and the final two panels gave an overview of the surviving historic structures on and around Prairie Avenue.

2005 and 2008 – Memorial trees
In May 2005, long-time community and non-profit servant, and public broadcasting pioneer Sherry Goodman died at the age of 78. During the 1960s and 1970s she worked for WTTW, starting as a freelance producer, and working her way up to producer and director of special audiences. She left to spearhead plans for the 50th anniversary of the Museum of Science and Industry in 1983, and later served as founding president and chief executive of Chicago Access Corp., organized to administer public-access TV channels.

Goodman was also a member of the Roslyn Group, a literary salon which had been formed in 1977 at the home of a member who lived on Roslyn Place. The group read Judy Chicago’s Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist telling of her exhibition “The Dinner Party,” that challenged the myth surrounding and narrowly defining women’s experience. The group was committed to finding a Chicago venue for "The Dinner Party" after learning that the Art Institute turned it down. When traditional approaches failed, the Group incorporated as The Roslyn Group for Arts and Letters to host the exhibition themselves in 1981. Goodman served as director of special audiences.

After her death in 2005, the Roslyn Group planted a tree in her honor south of the community garden plots, marked by a small plaque.

On October 1, 2003, twenty members of the International Women Associates spent the day visiting the Anderson Gardens, a 12-acre Japanese garden in Rockford. The Associates is a Chicago cultural and educational organization whose members engage in cross-cultural exchange, cultural service, dialogue, and friendship to foster a more just and peaceful world. The tour bus was heading back to Chicago at 3:00pm when it was rear-ended by a semi-truck, killing eight members of the group.

To commemorate the fifth anniversary of the accident in October 2008, IWA members gathered in the Women’s Park to dedicate two trees flanking the entrance into the park from Prairie Avenue. A plaque beside one of the trees notes “In memory of our eight friends, we will never forget you.”

2011 – Helping Hands

In 2009, the City of Chicago transferred ownership of the park to the Chicago Park District. Two years later, the Park District selected the Women’s Park as the new site for its sculpture, Helping Hands, sculpted in 1993 by Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) to honor Jane Addams. The sculpture was financed by the B. F. Ferguson Fund of the Art Institute and was installed in 1996 in Navy Pier Park. The sculpture consists of six roughly hewn granite pedestals, each supporting beautifully sculpted and polished hands symbolizing the many different people helped by Jane Addams and Hull-House through the years. The six pedestals represented Addams as social philosopher, pragmatist, writer, lecturer, defender, and the first significant woman to have a major work of art installed in a Chicago park.

By 2006, the sculpture had been vandalized, and it was shipped to New York where Bourgeois recarved the damaged sections. On September 24, 2011, it was rededicated in its new location in the Women’s Park, immediately north of Clarke House. Dignitaries from the city and Park District were present, and Betsey Means appeared as Jane Addams to give a moving speech in Addams own words discussing her work and impact on the immigrant communities served by Hull-House.

Betsey Means as Jane Addams

In 2015, Helping Hands was selected for inclusion in “Statue Stories,” a collaboration between the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and the Chicago Park District, whereby people could use their mobile phone to scan a QR code and then listen to the story of the statue. The text for Helping Hands was written by author Blue Bailliett and was recorded by actress and Oak Park native Amy Morton. Click here to listen.

2017 – Famous Chicago Women

Chicago Park District historian Julia Bacharach at podium
Alderman Pat Dowell standing at far right

The long-anticipated plan to honor important Chicago women at the park became a reality in 2017. Alderman Pat Dowell, the Chicago Park District, and the Chicago Women’s Park Advisory Council collaborated on the permanent installation of “Famous Chicago Women” in the lobby of the fieldhouse, dedicated on September 14, 2017. The women selected come from all walks of life and include leaders, activists, visionaries, artists, trailblazers, and innovators. Names include Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Guadalupe Reyes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Harriet Monroe, Lorrain Hansberry, Pearl Hart, Margaret Hie Ding Lin, Lois Weisberg, and Frances Glessner Lee. Panels featuring portraits of selected women face the second-floor mezzanine in the lobby, and the names of all others are inscribed on the wall. Ten women are also featured in a large window display facing Indiana Avenue.
Click here to download a brochure describing all the women honored in the exhibit.

This concludes our look at the decades of dreaming, planning, and implementation by countless individuals which resulted in the neighborhood treasure we enjoy today – the Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens of Chicago. The next time you visit Prairie Avenue, Glessner House, or Clarke House, we hope you will spend some time in the park enjoying its natural beauty and learning more about the significant women it honors.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Chicago Women's Park and Gardens - Part II

In Part I of our series, we looked at the prehistory of the present site of the Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens including the houses that stood there and the difference in development between Prairie and Indiana Avenues. A series of photos taken by Richard Nickel in the late 1960s captured the decline the neighborhood had experienced throughout much of the 20th century. In this installment, we will explore the period from 1968 until the early 1990s, when various proposals were developed to convert this grouping of vacant lots and parking lots into a park that would serve as a source of pride and an asset to the surrounding community.


As Marian Despres noted in her book, The First Twenty Years 1966-1986, “the creation of a park memorializing an important part of Chicago’s history in the midst of a rubble-strewn, long-deserted neighborhood was a great event.” Although she used the term “park” to describe the Prairie Avenue Historic District as a whole, the land comprising the present Women’s Park was always an essential part of the discussion. Within two years of saving Glessner House in 1966, the houses immediately to the south, at 1808 and 1812 S. Prairie, and the house across the street, at 1815 S. Prairie, had all been razed. This prompted a realization of the need to protect and preserve the historic resources that remained and to find a new use for the large swath of open land south of Glessner House.

1800 block of Prairie Avenue looking south, 1975


Planning funds were received in 1972 from the Chicago Community Trust and the National Endowment for the Arts to hire two nationally recognized planning experts. Roy Graham led the planning for Colonial Williamsburg, and James Marston Fitch was the founder and director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University. Regarding Fitch’s report, Despres noted:

“He recommended restoring and moving in other old buildings, some to be occupied to keep the area alive 24 hours a day. He suggested that developers working in areas where there were fine or significant old buildings be encouraged to move them to the District; they would save demolition costs and the donation of a house to the District could bring a tax benefit.”

The idea to move Clarke House into the area was a direct outgrowth of Fitch’s report; it was ultimately the only building moved to Prairie Avenue. Fitch also suggested the display of architectural fragments – larger pieces in an outdoor park, and smaller and more fragile pieces in the Swiss Products building at 1801 S. Indiana Avenue (the present fieldhouse). This recommendation addressed another issue - a growing collection of architectural fragments was gathering at Glessner, many salvaged by Richard Nickel during the unchecked demolition in the 1950s and 1960s of significant buildings by Adler & Sullivan, Burnham & Root, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others.

South end of current park site, looking toward the Keith House coach house, 1974

Land Acquisition
By the summer of 1973, the Chicago City Council approved the acquisition of the first parcels of land that comprise the current park, utilizing forthcoming funds from a State of Illinois Open Lands grant, along with federal funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that would be released once the city provide a 1-to-3 match. Governor Dan Walker visited Glessner House in September 1974 to sign the Open Lands grant agreement that provided a total of $350,000 in state funding for the project.

(L-R) Ruth Moore Garbe, Governor Walker, Marian Despres

In December of that year, Richard Macias of Preservation Urban Design was engaged to create the master plan for the Prairie Avenue streetscape, the park site, and the Swiss Products building. When Macias presented his plan in July 1975, proposed elements of the park included “footsteps” representing the original foundations of the lost houses on Prairie Avenue, and the division of the park into quadrants representing four distinct periods in the history of Chicago architecture. “The vacant land between the Glessner and Keith houses and part of the land surrounding the Clarke House site will become an architectural park where ornament, exhibits and demonstrations of Chicago architecture will be shown in a correct, handsome park setting.”

Clarke House

In 1977, the City of Chicago purchased the Clarke house from the St. Paul Church of God in Christ, which, under the leadership of Bishop Louis Henry Ford, had preserved the building for more than three decades. Plans were made to move the 120-ton structure nearly four miles from its site at 4526 S. Wabash Avenue to its new home on the Indiana Avenue side of the park.


Clarke House resting on Indiana Avenue, awaiting the move onto its new foundation (shown in the foreground), December 1977

The move in December 1977 attracted national attention, including the lifting of the building up and over the Green Line tracks at Calumet Avenue and 44th Street. (Click here to read an August 2014 blog article about the move). In 1978, The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Illinois signed on as a partner to restore and furnish the interior of the house. It opened to the public in 1982.


Clarke House, circa 1980

Prairie Avenue Historic District Restored

The year 1978 saw major progress. The streetscape of the 1800 block of South Prairie Avenue was restored to its 1890s appearance as suggested by Fitch, including limestone sidewalks, period light fixtures, granite curbs, and cobblestone gutters. Several buildings that were determined too deteriorated to be restored were razed, including the three rowhouses that faced 18th Street immediately west of Glessner House, and two surviving coach houses in the 1800 block of Indiana Avenue. 

An interesting concept to interpret the Prairie Avenue side of the park was developed by Ruth Moore Garbe and members of her Prairie Avenue Historic District committee. To represent the six houses that originally faced Prairie, the committee acquired historic and modern stone curbs and wrought iron fences in six different designs, to delineate the original house lots. The most significant fragments incorporated into the fence were four carved limestone columns from the former home of John G. Shedd at 4515 S. Drexel Boulevard. These were placed in front of the 1812 S. Prairie house site. (The entire porch of the Shedd house had been dismantled with the idea of erecting it as a pavilion in the park. Over time, portions disappeared, so in the end, only the four columns were reused).


Shedd House column as installed on Prairie Avenue

A recessed alcove in each section of fence along Prairie Avenue marked the location of the sidewalk that would have led up to the front door of each house. The old iron gate from the Chicago Public Library was installed at the alley entrance off of 18th Street. Asphalt parking lots, remnants of old sidewalks, and debris were removed, and the entire park site became a lush expanse of grass.


A Sunday on Prairie Avenue, looking west from Prairie Avenue, Swiss Products building (now the park fieldhouse) shown in background

The Prairie Avenue Historic District was opened in September 1978 with three days of celebrations including “A Sunday on Prairie Avenue” on September 17, featuring music, food, and activities typical of a late 19th century street fair. A huge tent was erected in the park for performances and presentations.

New Plan Developed

That same year, Macias was asked to complete the interpretive plan for the park. Negotiations were underway to acquire the Swiss Products building, with the thought of demolishing it and extending the park land to the corner of Indiana Avenue and 18th Street. The plans also called for using the existing brick alley, which cut the park into two halves, as a dividing line to define different historic periods. The park land around Clarke House would interpret Chicago’s early history, whereas the park land along Prairie Avenue between the Glessner and Keith houses, would interpret post-fire Chicago including the development of the Chicago School of architecture.


1978 park plan prepared by Preservation Urban Design

The park plans were set aside for several years once it was announced that Chicago was considering hosting a World’s Fair in 1992 on the lakefront immediately to the east of the Historic District, with 18th Street to be a major entrance corridor. For the next several years, discussions focused on the relationship of the neighborhood to the proposed fairgrounds.

The 1980s

Two smaller pieces of the plan were instituted during the 1980s. A series of interpretive panels showcasing the houses along Prairie Avenue had been under development since the fences were erected along the street in 1978. During the summer of 1982, the first nine panels were installed in the fence alcoves and in front of surviving houses and the site of lost houses on the east side of Prairie. Each panel featured a rendering of the house, information on the family that built it, and their contributions to the business and cultural growth of the city. Five more panels were added later.


Interpretive panel for the Joseph Sears house at 1815 S. Prairie Avenue

In May 1987, the bronze sculpture commemorating the Battle of Fort Dearborn (at the time still referred to as the “Fort Dearborn Massacre”) was returned to the neighborhood and placed in the park to the south of Glessner House. The sculpture, erected by George Pullman in 1893 on his property at 1729 S. Prairie Avenue, had been removed in the early 1930s after it was vandalized. It was owned and displayed by the Chicago Historical Society for many years, before being deeded to the city in 1986, making its return to the area possible.


Neighborhood tourees take a break in front of the Battle statue, circa 1990

In 1989, after plans to host the World’s Fair were abandoned, there was renewed interest in moving forward with plans for the park. Landscape architect Michele McBride was engaged to prepare an updated master plan with a total price tag of $600,000. Major components included period gardens around Clarke house, such as the family might have tended during its period of occupancy, and a meadow area with grasses and wildflowers that would convey the character of a native prairie.


Park plan prepared by Michele McBride, 1989

The Prairie Avenue side of the park was envisioned as more of a true park with large open lawns dotted with trees. The outlines of the original houses would be defined in stone and would relate directly to the interpretive signage set into the fence alcoves along the street. A meandering path would move in and out of the “houses.”

Federal Building Fragments

As was the case with earlier plans, it was never acted upon and the park remained undeveloped. Gerald R. Wolfe, in his book, Chicago In and Around the Loop, noted the park with its few architectural fragments “creating the impression of an old cemetery, which in effect it is, with the scattered chunks of stone as memorials to the once proud houses.”

The granite fragments were pieces of two 45-foot-tall Corinthian columns that had originally supported the dome of the Federal Building designed by Henry Ives Cobb. They were salvaged when the building was demolished in 1965, but by the early 1980s they had been thrown into Lake Michigan to reinforce a breakwater. Being rescued once again, they were moved to the park on Prairie Avenue where they remained until being reassembled in 1996 to form the gateway into the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Garden in the northeast corner of what is now Maggie Daley Park. With the removal of these columns from Prairie Avenue, the idea of an architectural fragment park was permanently put to rest.


Federal Building columns as installed at the Cancer Survivors Garden

In our next installment, we will examine a period of great activity for the park in the late 1990s that coincided with the redevelopment of the surrounding neighborhood as a highly desirable residential community for the first time in almost 100 years.

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