Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Park Forest: America's original GI town.

Aerial view of Park Forest, taken by my dad, Louis Kooistra, from  friend's small plane in 1954. We're looking roughly northward; the street looping through the photo from upper left to upper right is Shabbona Drive; the land that will become Talala Elementary school dominates the view. My first home is under construction at this time--it's the 10th home from the right on the north side of Shabbona.

This is a write-up I did for a mid-century-centric web site last year following a visit to the neighborhood I was born in: Park Forest, Illinois. This article never made it to print, but I thought some readers might like to see it, anyway, before the information about the PFHS museum became too stale.

Tourists visiting Chicago don’t need to be reminded of the city’s enormous influence on American architecture in the 20th Century.  One doesn’t need a guidebook (though there are dozens) or a walking tour (again, there are dozens) to recognize the works of Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright, architects’ whose iconic works defined the city. Chicago is truly America’s first city for architectural history.

Hardly on the consciousness of though, of those who care about architecture and its social influence on American culture is the community of Park Forest, a village of around 20,000 about 30 miles southwest of downtown.

Park Forest’s significance in post-World War II American cannot be understated, for while tens of thousands of new homes sprouted on the fringes of American cities as middle-class suburbs, Park Forest was the first fully-planned post-war community, carved from unincorporated land by developers who trusted its young residents in creating a local government, school districts, and churches where none existed before. Park Forest was a test-tube for sociologists, city planners, business philosophers, mass-producers of homes, and the location of one of the nation’s first shopping centers. Park Forest was the birthplace of what readers of this site would recognize as “mid-century modest.” The ideas and concepts pioneered in Park Forest were to be followed and copied across the United States for the next quarter century.

Thanks to a small but dedicated group of volunteers led by archivist Jane Nicoll, Park Forest’s history has been kept alive through a growing archive and a museum located in one of the Park Forest’s few remaining unmodified apartment buildings, recreating life for residents of what some have called America’s “original GI town” for its large number of returning war veterans. 

 Park Forest Historical Society museum, 141 Forest Blvd, is housed in one of the original 1948-built apartment buildings.

Operated by the Park Forest Historical Society, the museum is off the beaten paths of mainstream architectural must-sees in Chicagoland, but in the cultural scheme of things is no less significant, given Park Forest’s role in the transformation of society and the development of suburbs and the suburban lifestyle.

The two-story museum at 141 Forest Blvd. in downtown Park Forest, is housed in one of the original apartment buildings constructed by American Community Builders in 1948, and decorated as it might have appeared when the first residents occupied it during Park Forests’ earliest years.

Vintage furniture, accessories, children’s toys, books, clothing, vintage photographs,  and preserved news clippings give the visitor an idea of what life in what has been called “America’s Original GI Town” was like soon after Carroll Sweet, Nathan Manilow and Phillip Klutznik acquired 2400 acres of farmland and a golf course in unincorporated Will and Cook counties in 1946.

Jane Nicoll, PFHS curator and #1 booster of Park Forest history, in the museum's dining room, filled with period furniture and items of daily life.

The PFHS has also amassed a huge amount of archival material: movies, oral histories, photographs, documents and blueprints, housed in nearby St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

Envisioned as a community of single-family dwellings, Park Forest was initially developed as a cluster of 3000 apartment units to satisfy local zoning and FHA financing requirements. The apartments also brought an immediate influx of residents able to support the 225,000 sq. ft. Park Forest Plaza shopping center, which may have been difficult otherwise had a comparatively slower trickle of population arrived to occupy individual homes. There were no schools for the first couple of years, children attending classes in converted apartment units.

 The trend-setting open-air Park Forest Plaza shopping center in 1954. These buildings are still here, however by the 1980s, loss of business to neighboring super Malls found the pedestrian plazas removed and replaced by streets and curb-side parking.

 PFHS' collection fairly strains the available space in the archive room at St. Mary's Catholic church.

By 1950, Park Forest was a huge success. Initial phases of modest 2- and 3-bedroom frame homes had sold out, and newer neighborhoods were going up featuring more modern low-slope roofed homes with integrated carports that doubled as covered patios for entertainment. A nearby railroad spur brought in building supplies, and components for homes were pre-fabricated and then trucked to the home site, allowing at its peak 10 homes to be completed daily. ACB urged community involvement, and the young community voted on incorporating as a village and wrote their own laws, created funding for schools, public works and law enforcement, and formed dozens of clubs and organizations to keep its residents busy and socially engaged.

Park Forest was such a phenomenal success that it attracted the attention of Fortune Magazine editor William H. Whyte Jr., whose seminal business study “The Orgnaization Man” prominently featured  the community as an example of post-war suburban life and how it was shaped by the many mid-level corporate managers who applied the principles of corporate collectivism to their home life.

 Tastefully-maintained and upgraded (with set-back second-story addition) ACB 3-bedroom home built circa 1954. Originally around 1200 square feet, it retains its carport.

A similar ACB home built for my parents in 1954, 226 Shabbona Drive. Under the VA loan program, my father put $1500 down on a $14,500 home, paying 4.5% interest for 25-years--about a $75/month mortgage. The American dream certainly was affordable back then!

From a perspective in the 21st Century, Park Forest today doesn’t seem that unusual. Its winding streets of mature trees crowd in around houses that seem small by contemporary standards. The shopping center has been radically remade, its large anchor stores abandoned and then razed. But a drive through the neighborhood reveals a place that seems comfortable and familiar to those of an age to remember this type of surburban life in America. And that experience is reinforced that much further by a visit to this small but wonderful museum with the creaky wood floors, vintage steel cabinets in the kitchen, and small but cozy bedrooms upstairs.

The Park Forest House Museum is opened Wednesday and Saturday from 1030am to 330pm at 141 Forest Park Blvd. in Park Forest, IL. The museum may be toured by groups at other times; check with Jane Nicoll, 708-481-4252, archivist, to make an appointment.

A small admission fee is required, but additional donations are always welcome. The museum also has an assortment of books, calendars and other materials related to Park Forest for sale, including Gregory C. Randall’s “American’s Original GI Town,” a deeply researched book on the development and history of Park Forest and its influence on post-war suburban development.


Original steel-cabinet kitchen in the PFHS museum apartment.

 Steel-cabinet kitchen in my parent's first house, 226 Shabbona Drive, circa 1957.

1 comment:

Jay Culliney said...

Very interesting. My parents came to Park Forest around 1953 and lived in what they called "the rentals" Then we moved to our own house near the developing Talala Elementary School. If your father's overhead photo had included one more column of homes on the right, my family's house would have been visible. By your address, it looks like you may have been adjacent to the Callahan family. I am developing a virtual photo album (pdf form only) for the Talala class of 1961 reunion next month (Sept, 2015) and would like to use your father's picture of the school grounds. Is that possible? Would you happen to know the month the photo was taken?

Jay Culliney