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.

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