Farewell to the Chicago Park District and Tale of the Archives

After 28 fascinating and fulfilling years as historian and preservationist for the Chicago Park District, I am very excited to launch Julia Bachrach Consulting LLC. Over the years, when I contemplated leaving the Park District, I worried about what would happen to the archives without me.  I’m very happy to report that over a hundred thousand plans and photos have now been digitized and that many of the originals have been transferred to the Chicago Public Library’s Special Collections and Preservation Division: Special Collections.

Aerial view of Chicago Park District Administration Building and Soldier Field looking south, ca. 1975. Chicago Park District Records: Photographs, Special Collections, Chicago Public Library.

Back in the late 1980s, the discovery of some of these archival materials prompted the creation of my position at the Park District. At the time, the district was undergoing a major period of reform. Ed Uhlir, a talented in-house architect (who went on to head Millennium Park), had recently been promoted as director of the Engineering Department. Quite enamored with the history of Chicago’s parks, Ed often studied thousands of early architectural plans that were housed in the fourth floor engineering vault in the Administration Building on McFetridge Drive. (The building was razed in 2001.) Ed became intrigued by a rumor that other materials had been stashed away in a sub-basement vault adjacent to parking spaces reserved for executive staff, beneath the area adjacent to Soldier Field.  

For years, Ed had wondered what was behind its heavy metal door of the sub-basement vault. Finally in 1987, times were changing at the district. He found the combination for the vault’s lock and opened the heavy metal door. Ed was thrilled to discover original drawings and plans of Chicago’s parks by such famous designers as Daniel H. Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Jens Jensen, as well as historic photographs and other records. 

 View of Sub-basement vault, ca. 1988.

View of Sub-basement vault, ca. 1988.

The following year, Ed hired me as a consultant, and I helped hire an archivist and develop the materials into a collection for use by scholars, students, and others. I also headed a small historic preservation division charged with designating landmarks, creating exhibits and other educational programs, and working with architects and landscape architects to restore historic park buildings and landscapes. My role was made into an official Chicago Park District position in the fall of 1989.

Having daily access to a treasure trove of primary sources helped me become an expert on the history of Chicago’s parks. Even after nearly three decades, I never stopped making new discoveries. I’ve enjoyed assisting students and other scholars and have been excited when the archives have been useful to their work. But managing the archives became quite challenging.  By the early 2000s, I no longer had an archivist. In fact, by then I was the only staff person left from Ed's historic preservation unit.

I am so happy to announce that the Chicago Park District’s Special Collections are in good hands!

 Storage shelving for historic plans and drawings at Harold Washington Library, 2014.

Storage shelving for historic plans and drawings at Harold Washington Library, 2014.

The Park District soon digitized over 100,000 plans and drawing. In 2013, the district entered into an intergovernmental agreement with Chicago Public Library. At the time, the impending move of the vast number of originals was quite daunting. In 2015, I worked closely with Chicago Public Library (CPL) professionals Glenn Humphries, Morag Walsh, and Johanna Russ to oversee the careful packing and transfer of the drawing collection to Harold Washington Library. CPL built custom shelving for the drawing collection, and everything was safely moved and stored.

 Researcher working in Chicago Park District Archives Room, 2016.

Researcher working in Chicago Park District Archives Room, 2016.

We then submitted a grant to the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation grant for the park district’s collection of 70,000 historic photographs. We are grateful that the Donnelly Foundation grant enabled CPL to hire Armstrong-Johnston Archivists and Backstage Library Works to process and digitize the photos. The photo digitization project will be finished this spring. About 10,000 images will be posted on CPL’s web site, but the entire collection is available to researchers if you go to CPL’s Special Collections Reading Room at Harold Washington Library.

To use the Chicago Park District collections at the Chicago Public Library, all you need to do is call or visit the Special Collections on the 9th floor of Harold Washington Library, or you can contact their staff at (312) 747-4875 or specoll@chipublib.org.