TELLING GLADSTONE PARK’S STORY

It’s time to put Gladstone Park on the map. The community has history, culture, and tradition that runs so deep and so rich that it’s worthy of a movie. But its story has sat untold during its entire existence. Little research has ever been done. No one even knows for sure why we’re named after a British prime minister. Indeed, this website has been the first attempt to put its attributes all together with a nod to its roots.

Its lack of identity has put Gladstone Park at risk. Because nobody’s defined the who, what, where, why, and how of the community, it’s been hard to put together a strong, coherent response to some of the problems it faces. It needs to seek an identity. In business parlance, it’d be told to establish a brand. In plain words, it needs a good PR campaign to broadcast its message to the city and the world.

So how does Gladstone Park develop its image? How does it differentiate itself as the special community it is? How does it disavow the false narrative of racism from outsiders who don’t know that it’s a community that as a whole doesn’t condone discrimination in any fashion? How does it establish its working and middle class bonafides to give it credibility and gain the respect of the peoples and City of Chicago? How can better manage its growth? How does it get the government’s support for infrastructure and beautification improvements? Simply, how can it formulate a vision for the future and get a new lease on life?

Gladstone Park Exceptionalism

One way to make Gladstone Park stand out would be to make the most of the community’s exceptionalism. Google Gladstone Park and you will be hard pressed to find any other residential communities in the world with its exact name. Sure, you’d find Gladstone Park situated in the Dollis Hill area of northwest London, but it’s an 86-acre park with no people living there. There are the towns of Gladstone, Oregon and Gladstone, Missouri, but only their recreational lands have the full name “Gladstone Park.” Unless proved otherwise, it might be possible to claim Chicago’s Gladstone Park as the only Gladstone Park community in the United States.

It appears at this time as if Gladstone Park, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, may be one of the only communities in the world with the exact same name. Google Maps shows the town with its 8.338 (2016) residents in light gray below. Would it be possible to create some positive publicity and burnish Gladstone Park, Chicago’s image by becoming sister towns?

gladstone park australia

Gladstone Park, Australia may be the only community in the world with the same exact name as the Chicago neighborhood of Gladstone Park…at least until it is proved otherwise. A suburb of Melbourne, it has a 2016 population of 8,338 people. What doors might open up if the two Gladstone Parks became sister towns? Courtesy of Google Maps.

Gladstone Park is also unique in being named for 19th Century British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone at a time when most pioneering communities in the United States were naming themselves after famous American intellectuals and politicians (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, etc.).

What’s in a name? A lot, apparently. And it might be used to advantage. So, how else could Gladstone Park use its name to promote itself as the iconic entity it is? Could it contact British scholars for guidance in mounting a meaningful Olde English festival with the proper food and accouterments? Have a William Ewart Gladstone look alike contest? Link with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater to sponsor an event on local soil…perhaps in the nearby Jefferson Park Copernicus Center…and away from its Navy Pier home turf? Unlike Gladstone Park’s summer Throwback Festival, which closes part of N. Milwaukee Avenue for one glorified neighborhood block party, these events would serve to attract more outsiders to the community. And garner a whole lot of public relations besides.

william ewart gladstone

Photo of William Ewart Gladstone, 19th Century British Prime Minister after whom the community of Gladstone Park, Chicago, was named. Can the community capitalize on its unusual name to promote itself with an Olde English Festival, a William Gladstone look-alike contest, or an event in collaboration with the city’s own Chicago Shakespeare Theater? The possibilities are limitless.

And while Gladstone Park has its welcome signs, gardens and art in its pocket parks, how about going further into our roots? How about commissioning a bust of William Gladstone himself to be displayed in a prominent place, like the bust of Thomas Jefferson that’s now displayed at the Jefferson Park Transit Center?

Could a Ph.D. history candidate be engaged to research and write a book about Gladstone Park from the pioneer days of Billy “Sauganash” Caldwell on with the hope of printing and selling it, along with over 200 local history books such as Chicago’s Pilsen Neighborhood, Chicago’s Sweet Candy History and Lithuanian Chicago by Arcadia Publishing, whose mission is to “reconnect people to their community, their neighbors, and their past by offering a curbside view of hometown history and often forgotten aspects of American life.” Much of the community’s history is now lost, not the least of which is in old local newspapers whose nondigitized information is only accessible in library archives.

These are just a handful of ideas. The possibilities are endless.

In documenting the attributes of the community, this author poses that Historic Preservation would be another good way to go. Like the Chicago Bungalow Association, which established its Bungalow Belt some 15 years ago in order to develop appreciation for the iconic Chicago brick bungalow in order to save it from teardowns, Gladstone Park could make similar efforts to save its own unique architectural styles. Perhaps it start by getting assistance in recording where its 1900-1920 Dutch Colonials, 1910-1930 Brick Bungalows and 1930-1950 English Tudors (1930-1950) are located like the Workers Cottage Initiative is doing for the vernacular wood frame housing style built between 1870 and 1910 in Lincoln Park. A map could be produced with a walking tour and the community could team with the Chicago Architecture Center to share Gladstone Park’s architectural history.

Because it turns out that Historic Preservation is about much more than protecting old ivy-covered buildings with rules and regulations. In fact, it’s not that at all. Since the early days, Historical Preservation has evolved into surveys and studies to find vision for the future. It is a positive approach that tries to protect architectural buildings of note by supplying owners with the funds to improve them rather than tear them down.

Historical Preservation could also give the community cachet that could lend a layer of protection when it came to working with the city for infrastructure improvements and consideration with zoning issues. Besides hundreds of local, state, and national preservation programs, there are other private foundations that can provide workarounds for unwanted development issues. Preservation Chicago, whose slogan is “Love Your City Fiercely,” has experts who will come into any community to outline all the possibilities.

In fact, there is local precedent for establishing a historic district. After a decade of work, neighboring Norwood Park Historical Society has recently been given National Register designation by the National Park Service for its Old Norwood Park section of homes west of N. Nagle. In hopes of preventing teardowns of historic residential properties, the status conferred by the award conveys financial incentives for preserving homes from all eras…from 1880s Victorians to 1950s ranches…with matching grants and low-interest loans for homeowners.

It is of value to note that the official Chicago Zoning Map outlines Norwood Park’s National Register in red, as identified in its key in the map below. One can only conclude city planners and zoning officials pay some degree of attention to the area’s status when making development decisions.

Norwood Park Historical Zone

Gladstone Park’s got a lot more to brag about than Andy’s (Polish) Deli and the Superdawg (Hotdog) Drive-in Restaurant. So what else could Gladstone Park highlight?

Old Gladstone Park Historical District?

Readers who explored German/Dutch style houses and their history on this website found that the Gladstone Park community has perhaps the greatest number of “Dutch” Colonials in Chicago. Built 100 years or more ago by German (Deutsch) immigrants who’d earlier been conscripted by Catherine the Great to build houses for the Russian people in the Volga Valley, they have a fascinating providence. Dutch Colonials are concentrated in the area some people call “Old Gladstone” that starts roughly at its southern border around (William) Gladstone Park before heading north to N. Elston and west some eight blocks. Establishing a district by mapping all qualifying houses would make a good start.

English Tudor Territory?

When Gladstone Park subdivisions were built out, it was nearing the end of the bungalow era and starting the period when English style architecture was in its ascendancy. So while there are many Chicago Bungalows in the community, the uniquely Chicago-style brick English Tudors dominate, along with a good number of boxy brick English-style Georgians. English Tudors fascinate with their steep roofs, rounded towers, and fairytale features found in more abundance in the Gladstone Park community than anywhere else in Chicago. (Read histories and see photos of how all these styles were adapted to Chicago winters, city-sized lots and midwest culture in these architecture sections.)

Two/Four Flat Fascination?

Much has already been written about Chicago’s disappearing two/four flats. Who would guess that, because gentrifying market forces haven’t yet come to Gladstone Park with their wrecking balls, the community still has an abundance of this very valuable residential housing style? While some of them date back to the neoclassical and Art Deco design of the 1920s, more are in mid-century style with sleek lines and angled doorways. Unlike most other rentals, they give the feeling of single-family living with their front and backyards, as pictured in the Multifamily Housing Architecture section. Could the community get a professor or PhD candidate from one of Chicago area’s prestigious universities to do a study documenting how many of the two/four flats there are and where they are located? Can an initiative help ensure their worth so they can be protected from becoming teardowns?

Mid-Century Modern Business District?

The Gladstone Park Neighborhood Association and Gladstone Park Chamber of Commerce have known for years that the answer to improving its Business District is in strengthening its vitality, attractiveness and resilience. Even as they’ve aided and celebrated every new business that has moved in, they’ve found that encouraging owners of some of these small-scale commercial buildings to improve and adapt them for new uses has been difficult and sometime a losing battle. More and more, teardowns are becoming the strategy of choice.

At the same time, getting the city to invest in new infrastructure to increase the attractiveness of the Business District has unfortunately been near impossible. The community hasn’t even been able to get the CDOT to maintain the dangerous, litter-catching planting bed bumpouts the department installed as part of the crosswalk design of its “Complete Streets” program seven years ago. Fourteen of these beds as large as 6 feet by 10 feet sport weeds up to four, five feet tall, and when snow obscures their presence, they cause car accidents. They are nearly universally regarded as eyesores to nearby business owners and residents alike.

What if people and the city looked at the architecture of Gladstone Park’s Business and Industry Corridors in a different way? Okay, so the community has no imposing churches or historic theaters. Will people sit up and notice if they are told that because Gladstone Park’s main commercial corridor developed in fits and starts much later than the rest of Chicago, it has a very distinct appearance not seen elsewhere in the city? Its unusual physical structure makes it function very differently as well.

Part of that is due to its history. Before virtually any type of shop or pub rose out of the Far Northwest’s clayey muck, the city came in and altered the look of the community for all time when it implemented the road widening recommendations of the 1909 Plan of Chicago in one of the few undeveloped areas where it still could. Because it was not yet built out, Gladstone Park’s 2-1/2 mile long N. Milwaukee commercial corridor was expanded to four lanes with parking on both sides, creating its grand boulevard look. The widened road has a profound effect on life in the community. Unlike congested areas of the city, this stretch of Milwaukee blithely handles traffic. And despite its highway-like appearance, its speed limit is 30 m.p.h. (even if passers-through don’t always maintain it).

N Milwaukee's Broad Boulevard

The “broad boulevard” of N. Milwaukee that is Gladstone Park’s Commercial Corridor for all 2-1/2 miles as it runs through the middle of the community. One of the few roads in the city able to be widened to this degree based on 1909 Plan of Chicago recommendations, it has four driving lanes, a middle right/left turn lane and room for parking and bike lanes on both sides. Even though it looks like a highway, it has a posted 30 m.p.h. speed limit. Gladstonians traveling in the local community rarely encounter any traffic congestion or pedestrian road crossing problems. And since parking is so abundant both on the street and in dedicated parking lots, they do not have to put up with the parking meters so hated in the rest of the city. Photo by author.

The first wave of commercial construction in Gladstone Park occurred in the 1920s, spurred on when the 24-hour streetcar line first began operating down the full length of N. Milwaukee. Demand for goods and services came from passengers who wanted convenience as they got on or off at stops at the major crossroads in the community on the way to the big city or when returning home. Sensing opportunity, budding businessmen erected modest two-story brick buildings at those nodes following the architectural styles then popular in Chicago: a pastiche of eclectic forms ranging from neoclassicism to Art Deco. Often the small offices, stores and restaurants on their ground levels were complemented by owner apartments on their second floors. Where more people teemed, additional one-story commercial buildings were constructed to extend commerce down the street, creating the pattern of the “tall” buildings at corners with low-rise structures mid-block.

5800 Block N. Milwaukee

View of 5800 block of N. Milwaukee showing the original pattern of commercial development in Gladstone Park with “tall” buildings on corners supplemented by one-story storefronts in the middle of blocks. The picture is an apt illustration of the two architectural styles 30 years and worlds apart that have long been dominant in the community. Photo by author.

Because growth throughout America was stalled by the financial devastation of the Great Depression and the disruption of WWII, few new businesses established themselves anywhere, no less in the local community during the 1930s and 1940s. The original commercial buildings on the corners where the streetcars stopped continued to loom over vacant land in the middle of blocks. Wide swaths of land not near major crossroads sat undeveloped altogether.

It wasn’t until the postwar period that the second wave of commercial construction took place along the N. Milwaukee business corridor. As the community’s housing subdivisions were being built out between the late 1940s and the 1960s, the influx of new residents created more demand for services, shops, and restaurants. Business people responded, erecting storefronts and office buildings on one vacant lot after another. But it was not until the early 1960s that the entire Gladstone Park business district completely filled in, according to Chicago city planners who produced the Gladstone Park Corridor Study, Milwaukee Avenue from the Kennedy Expressway to the City Limits, January 28, 2017. Because of its staggered and delayed commercial growth, Gladstone Park was never in a position to be the object of the forces of the postwar Urban Renewal movement that devalued significant historic buildings elsewhere, demolishing them in its thirst for “progress.”

Low Rise Midcentury Design 1

A representative section of midcentury commercial buildings in the upper 5400 block of N. Milwaukee in Gladstone Park. These brick and stone buildings reflect the spare nature of “modern” architecture that eliminated unnecessary ornateness in exchange for the directness that came with the unbridled technological and scientific progress of the 1950s and 1960s. Where unaltered, there is abundant glass to express the openness and optimism of the era. The buildings’ sturdy construction and easy adaptability makes them good candidates for small offices and specialty shops in the 21st Century. Photo by author.

Why was Gladstone Park’s business district development always kept at least slightly out of sync with that of the rest of the city? One factor was geography. Its location in the Far Northwest corner of Chicago was simply of greater distance from the density and purchase power of the Loop than almost any of the other 76 city neighborhoods, greatly affecting its business climate. At 10-11 miles from the center city, the community might as well have been lightyears away.

While one person might rue the dampening effect the distance had on land values, another would see opportunity. With comparatively inexpensive properties, entrepreneurs during this second wave found they were able to profit even when constructing small, low-rise commercial buildings on large plots of land. Echoing the economic prosperity and optimism of the 1950s, they built sturdy, low-slung midcentury modern buildings with an abundance of windows, distinctive angular forms, bright colors and singular geometric shaped accents.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the limited commercial construction was primarily in the form of several large banks on large tracts of land and some six small strip malls with a handful of stores and shared parking lots with access off N. Milwaukee. But most of the rest of the business district stayed untouched as if frozen in time.

How does this come together nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st Century? The traditionally low land prices combined with development on its own time schedule led to Gladstone Park’s business district assuming a most unusual presentation for a major city. With its low-rise, spread out commercial landscape, it is a duck out of water when contrasted with downtown’s tall, dense buildings or even those in Lincoln Park, Bucktown, or the North Side. And because the community’s business development occurred during two distinct waves, it was left with only two main styles of architecture. Even today, the eclectic neoclassical/Art Deco two-story business buildings from the 1920s and 1930s and the one-story midcentury modern structures of the 1950s and 1960s predominate.

Less dense development on bigger pieces of property also affected functionality. The inexpensive property allowed business owners to cater to the growing postwar car culture by providing spaces for shoppers’ automobiles usually not found in other parts of Chicago…or any city. Gladstonians had the luxury of being able to pull into dedicated parking lots next to larger one-story or two-story shops, restaurants, and offices and do their business with ease. That is, if they didn’t take advantage of the plentiful street parking that came from the increased road frontage of businesses plunked down on bigger plots of land.

The legacy is that Gladstone Park is one of the very few communities in Chicago with so much available parking in its commercial zones that it has never had to regulate its streets with parking meters. It may not sound like much, but to many Gladstonians, the lack of parking woes is a huge point of pride.

As if in a time warp, many parts of the Gladstone Park business community look like they did 60, 70 even 100 years ago. Exteriors of original buildings, minus (perhaps) new windows and doors and perhaps signage, remain virtually unchanged. While some people might lament this makes Gladstone Park a relic that should be put to better use, others see the opportunity to preserve the unusual nature of what the community has before it loses it. However, there are hurdles to jump through in order to do so.

It’s true, while it’s trendy to preserve big neoclassical and Art Deco buildings from the early Twentieth Century, there isn’t nearly the level of appreciation for small midcentury commercial architecture of the 1950s and 1960s. With education, that opinion could be changed. These low-slung, sleek buildings that utilized geometric shapes and space age design expressed a period of American optimism and economic prosperity that people could easily get back to admiring today.

In fact, there is much to praise in both Gladstone Park’s neoclassical/Art Deco commercial buildings as well as its post WWII construction…even if we are almost too close to see it. They are rare survivors of two periods of architectural design 30 years and worlds apart. Carol J. Dyson, Chief Architect and Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer for Illinois, has worked since 1999 particularly to promote the preservation of midcentury commercial buildings with their open-front facades and asymmetrical angles. Her Midcentury Commercial Design Evaluation and Preservation: An Opportunity for Commissioners (2017) makes a solid case for accentuating the importance of commercial buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, advising they can easily be refreshed and updated at minimal cost for 21st Century use.

There are a few large buildings in Gladstone Park that could qualify as classic midcentury, such as Habetler Bowl and the two-story Esquire Motel with their bright colors, brick and glass geometry, and singular triangular signs. But many more are much smaller with angular glass storefronts, flat roofs, and sleek designs.

Ironically, old commercial buildings of the type that some real estate speculators are holding out of the pool of availability in hopes for an upzoned teardown may be becoming more valuable as working storefronts, as Chicago Chicago city planners wrote in the Gladstone Park Corridor Study (2017). Pressure for new small restaurants with rooftop bars, for instance, as well as commercial space for specialized stores such as Herbaland, 5433 N. Milwaukee, is increasing. Gladstone Park has perfectly-sized small commercial spaces to meet the demand.

If midcentury commercial buildings are excellent candidates for adaptive preservation, how about Gladstone Park or its agents helping enable owners to improve on them to increase their usability and financial worth while maintaining authenticity? If the community can make its Business District stand out as a different destination from a different era, it will attract more shop owners and restaurants.

Note there is a similar history about the uniqueness of Gladstone Park’s Industrial Corridor with photos and text that mirrors the development of the community’s Business Corridor. It has many mid-century architectural elements that are worth protecting, as well.

By paying respects to the community’s history by honoring what people did and built in the past, Gladstone Park can only benefit in the future. Can the community do this by protecting the uniqueness of the commercial landscape while increasing its value and paving the way for a healthier business climate in the future?