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Relocated archive opens history of Chicago and its parks to residents

Soldier Field under construction

Soldier Field under construction in July, 1923. | Chicago Park District Archives, Chicago Public Library

The painstaking move of tens of thousands of drawings, texts and pictures to the archives of the Chicago Public Library puts Chicagoans in closer contact with the history of their parks and the city that grew up around them.

Photos from the archives:

The Chicago Park District’s archives are being moved into Chicago Public Library’s Special Collections at the Harold Washington Library Center. They document the growth of the city’s parks and the riots, rallies and recreation they have been home to for more than a century.

As part of the New Deal era Works Progress Administration, parks allowed children to play with and borrow toys from “toy libraries.” Toys were made — and repaired in “toy hospitals” — by WPA workers. A box of toys from the lending library were returned to the District from a retired employees house during Julia Bachrach’s tenure – the box of homemade toys is part of the Park District archives. | Chicago Park District Archives, Chicago Public Library

The archive – more than 161,000 documents and growing – is by far the largest the public library has ever taken on. The process of moving them has taken years. The variety of items in the collection, from blueprints for monumental building projects by make-no-little-plan architects to toys lent out by New Deal-era toy libraries, reflect the diverse uses Chicagoans have found for their parks.

“I think that’s why I never got bored [after] 28 years on one topic,” said Julia Bachrach, the Park District’s longtime historian and archivist. “Because it covers so many things, its so broad. It’s the most amazing institution in Chicago, the Chicago Park District. It was, and it is today.”

Important historical moments – the 1968 protests against the Democratic National Convention in Grant Park, the launch of the Special Olympics, the Century of Progress exhibition – are also captured in the archive.

1968 protesters gather around the statue of Civil War general John A. Logan, the centerpiece of days of protest. | Chicago Park District Archives, Chicago Public Library

The relocated archives have seen a steady stream of visits by researchers interested in topics from landscape architecture to genealogy and historic water fountains according to Johanna Russ, a CPL archivist in charge of the collection.

As big changes come to Jackson Park, courtesy of the Obama Presidential Center and other construction projects, people have turned to the archives for evidence of Frederick Law Olmsted’s original plans for the site.

That’s not the only modern concern researchers have brought to the archive.

“We had one request from an attorney about a murder case. They were trying to prove the location of a playground that was no longer there. It helped with the alibi, in some way,” Russ said.

A plan drawn up by Fredrick Law Olmsted for the South Parks District in 1871 for Jackson Park, Washington Park, and the Midway Plaisance. The plans have become newly relevant as the Obama Foundation and other actors plan major projects in Jackson Park. | Chicago Park District Archives, Chicago Public Library

Ten thousand of the 70,000 photos in the collection are available online. The other photos and drawings can be viewed during visiting hours at Special Collections.

The germ of the collection was the discovery of documents in a half-forgotten vault beneath a parking lot next to Soldier Field in 1987. The next year, Bachrach began working at the Park District as an archivist, part of an effort to get a handle on more than a century of material.

Almost thirty years later, Bachrach began to look for an institution that could look out for the documents after she retired. In 2013, the Park District and the Library signed an agreement and began the transfer. Costs were borne by donations from the Donnelly Foundation and the Parkways Foundation.

The move of the collection posed a daunting logistical challenge.

For one thing, the documents were not only of historical interest. As the park system built, rebuilt, and renovated, its employees and contractors refer back to the plans for the site, so every document had to be digitized before it could be moved to its new home.

The collection was so large that some other parts of CPL had to give up space to accommodate the new demand for space from special collections. Some items – like sometimes to-scale drawings of planned architectural features – were so large the library had to order specially built cabinets to accommodate them. At one point, they contemplated taking door frames off their hinges to make room for the documents in transit.

To accommodate to-scale drawings of huge architectural features, like the eagle planned for the top of a flagpole in Grant Park (left) archivists invested in specially made cabinets and oversized storage folders like the one held by Chicago Public Library Senior Archival Specialist Johanna Russ (right). | Chicago Park District Archives, Chicago Public Library,
Drawing 2089, Adam Thorp/Sun-Times


“That’s what we paid the moving guys to figure out,” CPL archivist Morag Walsh said. “Its archival material, extremely valuable, extremely brittle, fragile. You couldn’t just stick everything up on end and shove it through the door. … We got to be very good friends with them.”

Some especially fragile drawings await conservation, as Special Collections resources and support from donors allow. Most of the written documents in the Park District archives remain at Park District headquarters.

“There’s still a lot to be done. But I don’t know if you can find too many other institutions that have taken on anything as large and complex as this. It’s a tremendous resource that will hopefully continue to grow,” Bachrach said.

History of the Parks

History in the Parks

Work and Play in the parks