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City Sights: parks from the progressive era

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Visitors to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 may have thought Chicago lived up to its official motto, "Urbs in Horto"--city in a garden. The exposition was held in Jackson Park, and strung around the city like jewels on a necklace were the other grand parks: Washington, Garfield, Lincoln. They were ideal places for a Sunday promenade or a restful view of trees and flowers.

But for the immigrants and workers who provided the muscle power for Chicago's growth into a world-class city, those parks' promise of recreation and solace was distant indeed. In the cramped tenement areas on the south and west sides, where up to 74,000 people lived within a square-mile area, there was simply no open space to spare. Children played in the streets and alleys; some of them enjoyed fishing for rats from the wooden-plank sidewalks. So let us build playgrounds, cried some social reformers. Let us build settlement houses, other reformers cried when the immigrants lacked English skills or went homeless.

"It was a time of great faith by all progressive reformers," says William Tippens. "They thought the improvement of a person's life could be handled systematically."

Tippens is one of the three employees who make up the Chicago Park District's new preservation planning division. An architectural historian, Tippens wrote his master's thesis at Columbia University about the most lasting legacy of those turn-of-the-century social reformers: the network of small parks that dot Chicago's neighborhoods.

"It was a time when the reformers took an active role in the community in which they were working," he says. "Before that, the social workers would work on the soup line and so on during the day, but they would leave the neighborhood at night. The progressive reform movement brought the reform worker directly into the neighborhood.

"The neighborhood parks were essentially the Park District's response to this progressive reform movement. Essentially, these parks took the social elements of the settlement houses, and the recreational elements of what is called the playground movement, and some of the elements of our larger pastoral parks, and attempted, through the work of designers, to synthesize those developments into a new park form." There were a number of city park commissions--which were not unified into the Chicago Park District until 1934--and some were more progressive than others. The South Parks Commission hired the Olmsted brothers to design its landscapes and Daniel Burnham's firm to design its buildings. The West Parks Commission hired the landscape designer Jens Jensen and the architect William Carbys Zimmerman. These people came up with some revolutionary ideas. They would construct parks in the most densely populated neighborhoods. They would offer a variety of recreational facilities: pools, ball fields, playgrounds. They would incorporate bathing facilities. They would build field houses that would host a wide variety of cultural events. The parks reformers and designers had political power that enabled them to condemn and buy land in Chicago's most densely crowded neighborhoods. They also had firm ideas about the ennobling effects thery expected their work would have on the masses. "A good building . . . cannot fail in the long run to make for higher standards of public and private taste," reported an architectural magazine in 1908.

Many of the field houses built in the early years of this century were also decorated with murals depicting scenes from American history. "They were trying to acculturate the immigrants," says Julia Sniderman, the Park District's preservation planner, "but they were also trying to foster pride in people's ethnic backgrounds."

By 1906 the South Parks Commission had completed ten small parks; that same year the Playground Association of America held its first convention in Chicago. President Theodore Roosevelt called the new parks network "the greatest civic achievement of any municipality in America." The commission, says Sniderman, "got a tremendous amount of publicity, and it really influenced the way parks were built all over the U.S. The field house, for example, is a building that's now used all over, and it came out of that movement."

Part of Tippens and Sniderman's job involves reminding the Park District of its own history, so that contemporary repair and restoration work can be carried out with sensitivity to the intentions of the original designers. Some of the small parks have fallen into disrepair. "When we take people to the parks, we have to help them envision the way the parks looked," says Sniderman. "But speaking as a preservationist, some of the integrity is still there." The ball field in Sherman Park, for example, is still surrounded by a lagoon, and the large field house complex is decorated with recently restored murals. "There is something glorious about that park that everyone notices," says Sniderman.

Beginning this weekend that will be easier to do. In conjunction with Friends of the Parks, Tippens and Sniderman designed a tour of six of the small parks, four on the south side (Sherman and Fuller parks, Armour and Davis squares) and two on the west side (Dvorak and Pulaski parks). Monthly through the summer, volunteer docents, trained by Tippens and Sniderman will lead three-hour bus tours of the six parks. The first tour begins this Sunday at 1 PM at Park District headquarters, 425 E. McFetridge; tickets cost $5, $4 for Friends of the Parks members. For information call 922-3307.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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