Gaze at women strolling with parasols and top-hatted men picnicking on the lawn in Georges Seurat’s 10-foot impressionist painting A Sunday on La Grand Jatte (1884) at the Art Institute of Chicago, and you might be deluded into thinking Western Civilization has had parks forever.
“A Sunday on le Grand Jatte” (1884) by Georges Seurat. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It wasn’t until 1842 that British commoners yearning for recreational opportunities in an increasingly dense urban landscape petitioned the Queen of England for a public park in London. Around the same time the Royals of England, began opening their gardens and natural preserves to urban dwellers. Together, the concept of providing greenspace for city peoples was born.
Why tell you this ancient history from a foreign land? Because the Windy City was in the same boat as London in the mid-1800s with no public parkland for its populace. But instead of having a Queen to petition and Royals to lean on, Chicagoans — in true comedic fashion — can thank cholera, poorly-located cemeteries, and dollar-chasing real estate developers as the catalysts for the establishment of its park system.
It started most inauspiciously in the mid-1800s with dead bodies rising out of sandy, low-lying soils from burial grounds on the shores of Lake Michigan. Quickly these became easy pickings for grave robbers, according to Block Club Chicago. When it was further feared that rotting cholera-infested corpses were posing a serious health threat to the city’s water supply, physician John H. Rauch led a citizens’ campaign to convert 60 acres of Cemetery Park on the city’s north side into public lands, as detailed by the Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago.
Before and After: the conversion of Chicago’s Cemetery Park into what became Lincoln Park. The “Plat of Cemetery Park” on the left is from1863 and the “Plan of Lincoln Park” on the right is from 1870. Both are found in the Report of the Commissioners History of Lincoln Park compiled by I.L. Bryan, 1899. Courtesy of Chicagology.
After the formerly swampy burial grounds became Chicago’s first dedicated public park in 1860, it was called Lake Park. But since there was another greenspace by that same name, it was renamed Lincoln Park in 1865 after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. From then Lincoln Park steadily grew to become one of the city’s largest and most heavily used recreation areas with a zoo, nature museum, ponds, botanical conservatory, theater and five playgrounds on some 1,200 acres.
But it was when Chicago reimagined itself as a world class city by way of its 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that it cemented its reputation as a fount of recreational pleasure grounds. First the city hired Frederick Law Olmsted, the visionary who created New York’s Central Park, to transform Chicago’s swampy Jackson Park into the Exposition’s supremely grand “White City” with Beaux-Arts classical buildings, reflecting pools, lagoons, and islands. But in a quest to achieve even more ascendancy, the city directed Olmsted to convert the world fair properties back into recreational land for the masses afterward. This is what created the enduring legacy of a 551-acre site that includes a spectacular Japanese garden, Lake Michigan swimming beaches, and the prestigious Museum of Science and Industry.
Chicago’s present day Jackson Park in the spring showing Japanese garden and ponds with one of the 1893 Columbia Exposition’s Beaux-Arts buildings from the “White City” that today houses the Museum of Science & Industry (centered, back). Public domain photo.
On a parallel track, Chicago at the beginning of the Twentieth Century was home to some 40 or so privately-owned gardens, forested areas and playgrounds haphazardly located all around the city as accouterments of neighborhood subdivisions. Originally established for the express purpose of increasing the desirability of the developments in order to sell houses and lots, the greenspace lost all value to their investors once the subdivisions were built out. When the properties became maintenance nightmares as well as tax burdens, developers let them fell into city hands. At first Chicago parceled out these recreational areas to 22 different neighborhood park jurisdictions for management…until the independent commissions went bankrupt in the Great Depression. They didn’t all get consolidated under one umbrella until 1934 when the city formed the Chicago Park District (CPD) as we know it today.
From then on, no dream was too big and Chicago went on to develop the largest and most comprehensive municipal park system in the entire country with 230 recreational fieldhouses on 8800 acres at 600 separate locations. Like most park districts, it hosts picnic groves, playgrounds, gardens, sports fields, fountains, hiking trails, monuments, and fishing areas. The fieldhouses of both historic and modern design, as envisioned by prominent architects of their times, hold classes in music, art, crafts, chess, photography, theater, ballet, and much more. They also have gyms that coordinate with outdoor facilities to run a wide variety of sports programs including instruction and competition in tennis, gymnastics, track and field, boxing, volleyball, water polo, softball, baseball, soccer and basketball. Ice hockey and skating take place at 6 outdoor and 2 indoor ice rinks. Fifty outdoor and 28 indoor pools offer swimming and other water activities. The outdoor pools traditionally open around Memorial Day and close down just before students return to their classrooms in mid-August.
A collage of 9 of 230 Chicago Park District Fieldhouses. Top row left to right: Dvorak Fieldhouse, 119 W. Cullerto; Ellis Fieldhouse, 3520 S. Cottage Grove; Fosco Fieldhouse, 1312 S. Racine. Center row: Garfield Fieldhouse, 100 N. Central Park; Kilbourn Fieldhouse, 3501 N. Kilbourn; LaFollette Fieldhouse, 1333 N. Laramie. Bottom row: McKinley Fieldhouse, 2210 W. Pershing; Pulaski Fieldhouse, 1419 W. Blackhawk; Union Fieldhouse, 1501 W. Randolph. Fieldhouses are the recreational centers for Chicagoans and are distributed throughout all the neighborhoods and subcommunities of the city. Photos courtesy of Chicago Park District.
If that weren’t enough, CPD manages 50 outdoor beaches and 10 harbors with spaces for 5,000 boats along the city’s 28 gorgeous miles of Lake Michigan lakeshore. But the bounty doesn’t stop there. CPD’s most extraordinary offerings include two district-run botanic conservatories, a top-notch zoo (one of the few in the country with free admission), and about the largest system of pro-designed public golf courses in the country.
But perhaps the most unique element of Chicago Park District is its collaboration with Chicago’s Museums in the Park that entitles everyone with a Chicago address free entry to 11 world-class art, history, science, culture and nature institutions several or more times a month. Located on Chicago parkland, these facilities include the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field (natural history) Museum, the John G. Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium, all of which consistently rate in the top ten lists for museums of their kind in the country. In thanks for such largess, residents who have the means to do so often take out individual or family memberships to support their favorite museum(s) for all they give to them and the city at large.
Thematically, three of Chicago’s natural science museums (Adler, Shedd, and Field) are clustered together on CPD’s 57-acre Museum Campus south of the Loop near Lake Michigan. This site also holds the CPD-managed Lakeside Center of McCormick Place (the city’s convention center) as well as Soldier Field. The sports stadium, opened in 1924 to honor WWI soldiers who had died in combat, is the current home of two professional sports teams: National Football League’s Chicago Bears (since 1971) and Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire (since 2020).
Logos of the 11 member museums of Chicago’s Museums in the Park. There are 4 art and cultural museums (Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, National Museum of Mexican Art, National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture); 5 science and nature museums (Museum of Science and Industry, John G. Shedd Aquarium, The Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, Chicago Academy of Sciences’ Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum); and 2 history museums (Chicago History Museum, DuSable Museum of African American History). Courtesy of Museums in the Park.
For more information, on all these facilities and programs links, explore the Chicago Park District website.
People might not initially move to the City of Chicago for the parks, but its parks are often one of the factors they cite for developing the fierce loyalties they have for the city they never want to leave. There’s nothing like the ambience of being able to take an elevator 60 or 80 floors down from one of the city’s iconic skyscrapers downtown where one works or lives and be able to walk to fountains, gardens, playgrounds, museums, bandshells and theaters of nearby Grant Park on the lakeshore.
Conversely, people who move to Gladstone Park often cite the parks and its rural quasi-country club atmosphere as the express reason they relocated to the small community. Still within Chicago’s limits but lightyears away from the dense, inner-city, the wildland-urban interfaced community is a complete anomaly in a metropolitan area of its size. With its entire northern border merging onto where the North Branch of the Chicago River winds through the vast Forest Preserves of Cook County, Gladstone Park simply has a stupendous amount of parkland. That means that nature isn’t only something its people watch on the National Geographic TV Channel; they experience it on a daily basis.
The Forest Preserves’ North Branch Trail System adjacent to Gladstone Park extends over 20 miles from the Mayfair and Forest Glen communities to its east to where it meanders north through the suburbs of Niles, Skokie, Morton Grove, Glenview, Northbrook, Northfield and Winnetka. Near the Trail’s northern end in Glencoe are the 385 acres of the Chicago Botanic Garden, consistently rated as the top botanic garden in the Midwest.
The section of the Forest Preserves frequented most by Gladstonians is Thaddeus S. “Ted” Lechowicz Woods” east off N. Central. With pedestrian bridges over the North Branch of the Chicago River and Metra’s Milwaukee District North Rail Line, its running, hiking, and cycling trails are a favorite spot for nearby residents. (Young children in the author’s neighborhood delightfully call it the “Enchanted Forest.”)
On the other side of N. Central is the historic 18-hole public Edgebrook Golf Course, laid out nearly 100 years ago by locals Maurice S. and Burt Dean, as detailed in the Edgebrook Community Association’s 29-page pamphlet Edgebrook from Billy Caldwell to 1973. The Billy Caldwell Golf Course, a 9-hole course specifically laid out for ladies three years later, is a one mile drive away on N. Caldwell (half mile as the crow flies). It was designed by Chick Evans, a prominent amateur golfer from the 1910s and 1920s. Both were later taken over by the Forest Preserves, made public, and made genderless.
The proximity of the golf courses puts Gladstonians who live on Indian Road directly across from the Edgebrook Golf Course while others (whose houses are further west) front right onto it, creating the aura of living in a resort community. It’s what reminds the community of how important Billy Caldwell, the Potawatomi Indian Chief who helped negotiate treaties between the Indigenous tribes of the region and the white settlers, was. For the reservation lands granted to him by the U.S. Government in thanks for his work are what he donated to form the basis for the North Branch Trail System of the Forest Preserves years later.
Southern section of North Branch Trail of the Forest Preserves of Cook County that are on Gladstone Park’s northern border. The trails of Thaddeus S. “Ted” Lechowicz Woods off N. Central are a favorite entry point for running, hiking, and cycling trails. The 18-hole Edgebrook (public) Golf Course is across the street from the community’s Indian Road properties and some houses border directly on the course to its west, lending a resort atmosphere. Note the proximity of the public 9-hole Billy Caldwell Golf Course off W. Caldwell and the Whealan Pool (outdoor) Aquatic Center in the Preserves’ Caldwell Woods off W. Devon. Courtesy of Forest Preserves of Cook County.
As an addendum, Gladstone golfers should know that if they don’t want to restrict themselves to the two courses right on their doorstep, they don’t have to. Like kids in a candy store, they have their choice of 14 golf courses within the city limits, 11 of which are publicly-run. There are another 85 golf courses (including championship PGA venues) within 20 miles of the city, and 60 of them are public- or municipal-owned, according to golflink.com.
There are 5 public parks in the one square mile that makes up Gladstone Park: two pocket parks that welcome people to the community and three neighborhood parks with fieldhouses that function as the recreational facilities of their hyperlocal areas.
Gateway Welcome Park, one of the pocket parks, is a small triangle of property at the extreme southern end of the community, sandwiched between W. Foster, N. Milwaukee and N. Central. Besides a welcome sign, it has gardens and benches. On its N. Milwaukee side is a Chicago Transit Authority bus stop next to an upgraded Pace Bus shelter for the line that connects riders to the suburbs.
But what really shines at Gateway Park is the Volga public art installation by created by Chicagoan Bernard Williams. Its tall metal sculptural elements represent the history of the community focussing on the Volga Germans (“Deutsche”) who had been pressured to abandon their native language and culture from where they’d settled in the Volga River Valley of Russia two centuries earlier before choosing to immigrate for the freedom and opportunity that was Chicago starting in the 1890s. Bringing their superior agricultural and building skills to Jefferson Park/Gladstone Park, 450 Volga German families had settled in the neighborhood by the 1930s, leaving the legacy of the sturdy “Dutch” Colonials they built with their distinctive gambrel roofs.
Also notable on the Volga art installation is the actual 80-year-old Red Star sign that was once mounted on a pole in the parking lot of the Red Star Inn at 4179 W. Irving Park Road. Former Alderman John Arena and Preservation Chicago were responsible for saving the red-bulbed artifact until it could be incorporated into the sculpture.
Chopin Welcome Park at the merger of N. Elston and N. Milwaukee, its two primary thoroughfares, is the location of the second pocket park. Right smack dab in the center of the community, it has a welcome sign, gardens, and benches. The small triangle of property’s significance is twofold, the first of which is its official designation as Chopin Plaza, a title bestowed upon it with great fanfare in 2014. Named for Polish composer Frédéric François Chopin, the Plaza honors the many Poles who originally settled in the community as well as its second and third generations (and new immigrants) who keep the Polish culture and language in Gladstone Park very much alive. Its other importance is as the site for the community’s Christmas Tree lighting ceremony where Gladstonians gather to celebrate with hot chocolate, festive music, and the coming of Santa Claus.
(William) Gladstone Park in Old Gladstone on N. Menard, is the oldest neighborhood park and dates to 1930. On a 1.74 acre piece of land, it is surrounded by wood framed Dutch Colonials originally built by the German community that immigrated from the Volga River section of Russia. Besides the small brick fieldhouse designed by Clarence Hatzfeld, the park has t-ball and junior soccer fields, an ADA accessible playground and spray pool, and a small outdoor basketball court. In order to provide more resources and offer additional programs at the park, patrons organized the Gladstone Park Advisory Council in 2018. Partnering with Friends of the Park to work with the Chicago Park District, the advocacy group raises money to support its Silver Screens Series of outdoor movies, its new butterfly garden, and its teen-executed food drive.
Rosedale Park on W. Rosedale, on 3.02 acres, was built three years later in 1933. It has a Hatzfeld-designed brick fieldhouse large enough to contain an indoor gym. Outdoors are softball and junior-sized soccer fields, two tennis courts, two playgrounds, two basketball standards, and a spray pool.
Indian Road Park off N. Indian Road, originally built in 1948 by the Board of Education, has been managed by the Chicago Park District since 1959 even though ownership of the property was only transferred to CPD in 1991. On 3.50 acres, it has a small fieldhouse, baseball diamond, playground, spray pool, and basketball court.
Although none of Gladstone Park’s community parks have public outdoor swimming pools, residents can take the plunge at three locations nearby for seasonal swimming. The 25-yard Jefferson Memorial Park pool a half mile south in the greater Jefferson Park neighborhood on N. Long Avenue…the city’s northwest representative…is one of only three of the 50 outdoor pools operated by the Chicago Park District that stays open through Labor Day. There’s also the 50-yd Norwood pool on N. Natoma, one-half to one mile or so west in Norwood Park. Or residents can spend the day at the Whelan Aquatic Center, an outstanding resort-style outdoor water pool and park run by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. That’s in Caldwell Woods across W. Devon Avenue on the community’s northern border.
Because Gladstone Park has always been significantly underserved with nearby opportunities for year-round (indoor) swimming, the Chicago Park District set up an unusual agreement with the Leaning Tower YMCA on W. Touhy Avenue in suburban Niles just across the city border for Far Northwestern Chicagoans to participate at resident rates. Unfortunately that facility closed permanently on June 1, 2020 due to maintenance issues exacerbated by the pandemic. COVID-19 also contributed to the Adult Education Program swimming program that some people preferred at Wilbur Wright Community College’s indoor pool being terminated. Part of Chicago’s Community College System at 4300 N. Narragansett Avenue a mile and a half to three miles away, Wright plead lack of lifeguards and so far hasn’t reversed its decision after COVID was deemed controlled. That left Portage Park, at least 1.6 miles away at 4100 N. Long Avenue, with its 5-lane 20-yard long indoor pool with an ADA lift and stairs as the closest place to swim laps and do group exercises. Regrettably, though, it closes its indoor pool when its outdoor pool opens seasonally, also due to the lifeguard shortage. The only opportunity for year-round indoor swimming is at the Irving Park YWCA, some three to four miles south of Gladstone Park at 4251 W. Irving Park Road. Without convenient nearby locations for year-round indoor swimming, many individuals and particularly seniors and the disabled do not have the chance to participate in low-impact exercises that are so highly recommended.