Historical Photos Revisit The Rise Of Parks And Public Spaces In Chicago’s Bygone Eras

Old Chicago photos Palace of Fine Arts
An 1892 photo of the Palace of Fine Arts under construction for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that would be held one year later. The Palace later became the Museum of Science and Industry. Credit: Chicago Public Library, C.D. Arnold Photographic Collection, Volume I, Plate 46c
Old Chicago photos Palace of Fine Arts
An 1892 photo of the Palace of Fine Arts under construction for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that would be held one year later. The Palace later became the Museum of Science and Industry. Credit: Chicago Public Library, C.D. Arnold Photographic Collection, Volume I, Plate 46c

Historical Photos Revisit The Rise Of Parks And Public Spaces In Chicago’s Bygone Eras

Over a hundred historical photos, drawings and artifacts from some of Chicago’s most iconic public spaces are in a new exhibit at the Harold Washington Library Center downtown.

Titled “From Swamps to Parks: Building Chicago’s Public Spaces,” the exhibit uses items from the Chicago Public Library archives that are on display through August 2021.

The photos — some more than a century old — show people enjoying parks and other outdoor areas, exemplifying Chicago’s motto, “City in a Garden.” Architectural drawings show the innovative engineering that was needed to create public spaces on Chicago’s marshy land.

“I hope people gain a new respect for the amount of work it takes to create a park,” said Julia Bachrach, the exhibit’s co-curator and former Chicago Park District historian. “You don’t think about the fact that it’s not just a natural landscape — every single one of those trees was planted.”

Here’s a sampling of some of the photos from the exhibit and a bygone age:

Ski jumping (yes, really) at Soldier Field

Old Chicago photos ski jump
Photo credit: Chicago Public Library, Chicago Park District Archive, Photograph 009_002_003 Title: Ski jump, Soldier Field, [1954]

Ski jump contests were a regular event in the Midwest, organized by local groups such as the Norge Ski Club in northwest suburban Fox River Grove. The contests were thriving by the 1920s and 1930s. Due to the lack of mountainous terrain in the Midwest, groups would make ski jumps from wood structures and compile artificial or real snow. They did their jumping at local parks or, as this photo shows, in the spectator stands at Soldier Field.

A Chicago invention: the park fieldhouse

Old Chicago photos fieldhouse
Photo credit: Chicago Public Library, Chicago Park District Archive, Photograph 100_015_003 Title: Toy lending center, Stanford Park, 1940

While many people might think fieldhouses at Chicago parks are mainly fitness centers, they’ve always offered more than that to local residents.. The fieldhouse was a Chicago-born concept in the early 1900s, inspired by settlement houses that had recreational, educational and social services in disenfranchised areas.

This picture features the former Stanford Park Fieldhouse on the Near West Side, known for its toy lending services during the Great Depression. The toys, fashioned by employees with the Chicago Park District or the Works Progress Administration, were available for area children to borrow during the hard times. The fieldhouse was also a play area for children mingling with the toys.

Bringing the desert to Garfield Park Conservatory

Old Chicago photos Garfield Park Conservatory
Photo credit: Chicago Public Library, Chicago Park District Archive, Photograph 027_017_026 Title: Raising a cactus in the Desert House, Garfield Park Conservatory, undated

Workers install a cactus at the Garfield Park Conservatory on the city’s West Side. While the conservatory was constructed in 1908, the Desert House featuring cacti and succulents was created later.

“Kind of fascinating to think about how they put this together,” said Johanna Russ, the exhibit’s co-curator and special collections librarian with the Chicago Public Library. “Cacti don’t naturally grow out of the ground here.”

An isolated Field Museum on the lakefront

Old Chicago photos Field Museum
Photo credit: Chicago Public Library, Chicago Park District Archive, Photograph 033_002_016 Title: Grant Park, looking south at the Field Museum and developing park land, circa 1920

One hundred years ago, the Field Museum was surrounded by undeveloped land that would later become Grant Park, the Museum Campus and Lake Shore Drive. The grounds for Grant Park and the Field Museum were largely built from landfill. Debris from the Great Chicago Fire, canal dredging and downtown construction were used to fill in the lake in this area. The original lakefront started right by the train tracks pictured in this photo, which are still in use today by Metra Electric trains.

Boating near the Museum of Science and Industry

Old Chicago photos boating
Photo credit: Chicago Public Library, Chicago Park District Archive, Photograph 045_027_004 Title: Boating, Jackson Park, [1947]

People in the late 1940s enjoyed boating in the Jackson Park lagoon just south of the Museum of Science and Industry, something that’s not allowed these days.

The MSI was originally built as the Palace of Fine Arts for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. It was referred to as the Field Museum for a time, and housed many of the artifacts that were later moved to the current Field Museum location. The MSI fell into disrepair in the 1920s, but was resurrected with help from Sears, Roebuck and Co. CEO Julius Rosenwald, and it reopened to the public in 1933.

Bears and bowlers at the Lincoln Park Zoo

Old Chicago photos bears
Photo credit: Chicago Public Library, Chicago Park District Archive, Photograph 167_011_007 Title: Lincoln Park Zoo, bears, circa 1900

Two men in bowler hats observe the bears exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo in the early 1900s. This photo was iconic during its time period, with the zoo regularly reproducing it on postcards for purchase. The free zoo marks its founding in 1868, when New York’s Central Park gifted four mute swans to Lincoln Park.

Russ said of the photo, “It shows people have been enjoying the zoo for a very long time.”

Minju Park is a news intern for WBEZ. Follow her @meenjoo.

Clarification: This story has been revised to give a more accurate location for the former Stanford Park Fieldhouse, based on information from historian Julia Bachrach.