The City in a Garden

A Photographic History of Chicago's Parks

Chicago Park District: 1934-1940s

chicago-park-districtBy 1934, all of Chicago's 22 independent park districts were rendered financially insolvent due to the Great Depression. Eighteen of the districts had defaulted on their bonded indebtedness, nine were behind in paying employees' salaries, and all owed money to contractors and suppliers. 1 For years, there were discussions about the inefficiency of having so many separate agencies providing recreational services and managing Chicago's parks. To reduce duplication of services, streamline operations, and gain access to funding through President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, voters approved the Park Consolidation Act of 1934, which established the Chicago Park District (CPD).

Chicago's Mayor Edward J. Kelly, who had recently served as the president of the South Park Commission, was well versed in parks administration, and he helped to set up a large, new organization. Several board members and most of the department and division heads had served similar positions for the independent park districts. Between 1935 and 1941, the newly consolidated CPD received $82 million in federal funding through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). State and city funds increased this total to more than $100 million. At the time of consolidation, the Chicago Park District inherited more than 130 parks, including 83 field houses, 13 beaches, five golf courses, and 50 swimming pools. As these park facilities and landscapes were in various states of completion and disrepair, a significant portion of WPA funds allowed a flurry of construction and improvement projects.

Chicago Park District staff members were responsible for most of the planning, engineering, design, and construction work. Although pressure to build quickly resulted in some poorly conceived and executed projects, many notable works of architecture and landscape design emerged during this period. Among them were the North Avenue Beach House, designed to emulate a lake ship, and a series of rustic, masonry and brick Revival style shelter buildings and comfort stations. Remarkable landscape architecture of the 1930s includes the work of Alfred Caldwell, a disciple of Jens Jensen. In addition to designing landscapes for expansive landfill additions to Lincoln and Burnham Parks, Caldwell redesigned Lincoln Park's lily pool and completed the western side of Riis Park. Caldwell's naturalistic style and use of native plants profoundly influenced other in-house landscape architects.

Using WPA funds, the Park District also provided a broad array of recreational, educational, and arts programs. A large menu of athletic programs, competitions, and contests included canoe racing, kite tournaments, fencing, water polo, tumbling, and baseball schools. Examples of arts initiatives were the founding of the Grant Park Concerts in 1935 and an art department headquartered in Washington Park, which employed 350 painters, illustrators, sculptors, and art teachers. Park patrons could also participate in drama classes, theater and dance guilds, music lessons, and concerts. Among the crafts offerings were model airplane and yacht making, marbles, and automobile reconditioning. Toys made in adult wood craft classes were placed in toy-lending libraries and used by CPD playgroups. Giant water floats produced by the craft classes were placed in Burnham Park Harbor, illuminated, and paraded on summer nights in the Carnival of the Lakes. Many efforts were made to reach out to women and minority groups, including African-Americans, and the district began to hire a diverse workforce during this period.

By the end of 1941, WPA funding had been eliminated, and the Park District's focus shifted to the war effort. Every member of the recreation staff was given Red Cross training, and each of the then existing 96 field houses offered similar training to the public. Park District employees participated in a civilian defense organization, and mass meetings were held in various field houses. Neighborhood residents planted victory gardens in many parks. In Lincoln Park, the old Daily News Sanitarium for Sick Babies was converted into a recreation center for the United Service Organization (USO). The CPD began to hire women for previously restricted positions such as lifeguards and service guards to help the park police.

1. George T. Donohue, "Park Consolidation in Chicago," Park and Recreation, November, 1936, VOL. XX, No. 3, p. 103.