In honor of Independence Day, I am highlighting the history of Independence Park, located in the Irving Park community on Chicago’s Northwest Side. If you haven’t visited, this is a wonderful 8-acre park that I nominated to the National Register of Historic Places several years ago. The nomination is quite exhaustive; I’ve pared it down to share some highlights with you here.
Located about 8 miles northwest of downtown, Irving Park began as a middle-class commuter suburb, easily accessible by the Chicago & North Western Railroad, which first provided stops here in the 1870s. Annexed into Chicago in 1889, the area soon had fine homes and nice shops. By the turn of the 20th century, many civic groups had formed in Irving Park, including several women’s organizations.
Beginning in 1903, neighborhood groups worked together to plan Irving Park’s first annual 4th of July celebration. The event began with a morning parade headed by members of the Grand Army of the Republic. The procession led to what is now the park’s location forall-day festivities with a ball game, athletic competitions, and such patriotic addresses as a reading of the Declaration of Independence.
When I was preparing the park’s nomination, Frank Suerth of the Northwest Historical Society sent me a copy of a colorful multi-paged flyer promoting the 1906 Independence Day Celebration. This original program lists all of that year’s athletic competitions such as separate 50-yard dashes for boys and girls under the age of seven, a shoe race, a three-legged race, and“fat men’s” race for gentlemen who weighed at least 210 pounds. Among the prizes were boxes of chocolate, a cook book, a catcher’s mitt, bars of soap, and cigars. Events included a band concert, and of course, an evening fireworks display. I have to believe that a good time was had by all!
Irving Park residents petitioned Chicago’s Mayor Fred Busse for parks in their neighborhood in 1907. Busse referred the matter to the city’s Special Park Commission, an organization founded in 1899 to establish municipal playgrounds in tenement neighborhoods and forest preserves at the outskirts of Chicago. The Special Park Commission inspected several Irving Park properties, including the site of the annual 4th of July As the Commission members could not justify spending its limited funds on the spacious, middle-class Irving Park neighborhood, they rejected the request. Undaunted, community leaders realized that state enabling legislation offered an alternative. In 1910, by popular vote, residents established their own independent Irving Park District. (This was consolidated into the Chicago Park District in 1934.)
The new Irving Park District soon began acquiring the previously-identified site. Although this process took years, the neighborhood continued holding its annual 4th of July festivities there. Recognizing the celebration’s importance, the site was officially named Independence Park. In 1913, the park district hired architects Hatzfeld & Knox to lay out the grounds and design a field house for Independence Park.
The two partners Clarence Hatzfeld (1873-1943) and Arthur Howell Knox (1880-1973) had previously worked together as draftsmen for Chicago’s Board of Education under head architect Dwight Heald Perkins. The Independence Park project was their first field house commission. Although the partnership ended in 1915, Hatzfeld went on to design approximately 20 other Northwest Side field houses including buildings in Indian Boundary, Portage, Eugene Field, and River Parks.
When the Irving Park District erected its $60,000 building in 1914, field houses were still a new building type. As a matter of fact, the world’s first field houses, designed by Chicago architects D.H. Burnham & Company, had been constructed only nine years earlier on the city’s South Side. With club rooms, libraries, auditoriums, and gymnasiums (with lockers and showers), the original field houses were conceived to provide services to overcrowded tenement neighborhoods.
In designing the Independence Park Field House, Hatzfeld & Knox carefully tailored the building to the needs of its middle-class neighborhood. While including the main components of earlier Burnham-designed field houses, such as a gymnasium and library, the architects also added an indoor swimming pool— a feature then only found in such private clubs as the Central YMCA or the Chicago Athletic Association. With its symmetrical layout and monumental arched facades, the Independence Park Field House conveys a sense of classicism. But, it also expresses the Prairie style through its long horizontal wings, rich pattern work, and broad overhanging tiled roof.
When first completed, Independence Park had a ball field as its centerpiece. By the 1920s, however, park district administrators asked Clarence Hatzfeld replace the field with a sunken garden. Hatzfeld wrote that this extensive “garden with gold fish pool, fountain, putting greens, horse shoe courts, croquet field, pergolas, trees, shrubs and colorful formal effects” included “privet hedges and groupings of Carolina poplars.” This landscape project also featured a flagpole and concrete pavers the spelled out the park’s name.
In the late 1920s, the Irving Park District enlarged Independence Park by acquiring several single family homes at its eastern edge. The administrators razed most of these buildings but they decided to keep a corner bungalow as a Women’s Club building. Sadly, Hatzfeld’s sunken garden did not survive over the years. However, you can still see the bungalow, field house, and historic pavers that herald Independence Park’s name.
If you’re interested in learning more about historic Chicago Park architecture, stay posted! I will be teaching a Chicago “Parkitecture” seminar at the Newberry Library on Wednesday evenings in the fall (September 27-October 18, 2017). I’ll provide more information about how to register as it becomes available.