The Sherman Park lagoon and fieldhouse in 1989 (image added 2018) Credit: Sun-Times print collection

Chances are you’ve never heard of Sherman Park. It’s a relatively small (60 acres, or about a dozen square blocks) south-side park that hasn’t had all the maintenance it could use. But even if you pass it every day on your commute down Garfield Boulevard (its southeast corner is 5500 south and 1200 west) you might not have seen it, as it’s hidden from the street by a grassy berm. And if you did drive into the park, through the entrance off Racine, say, you might notice that it’s seen better days.

But if you take a look, you’ll see a 14-acre lagoon full of ducks and fish encircling a big island with four playing fields. The field house and gymnasium buildings at the north end are carefully scaled to focus but not overwhelm the landscape. The proportions are soothing: “There’s just something about that park,” says more than one visitor. Twenty years ago it was a favorite haunt of Marlene Carter (now alderman of the 15th Ward, which includes the park). “I’d take my baby boy and dog and radio, and I’d go out there and read every day. It was a great park and it still is.”

The professionals like it too, and not just because it was designed by the Olmsted Brothers and Daniel Burnham, two of the biggest names in the business. Preservation architect John Vinci and landscape architect and historian Stephen Christy reported after a fall 1982 visit, “In no other city park of this size have any designers started with so litte natural advantage and created as fine a result. Sherman Park is one of those rare works of landscape art that looks perfect from every angle.”

But Sherman Park will be 85 years old this fall, and the same neglect that has benignly preserved its historic features has allowed some parts of it to deteriorate as well. The lagoon is clogged with up to three feet of sediment; the shady, airy pergolas that once connected the field-house and pool areas have vanished; many of the original trees, vines, and shrubs are gone; the buildings themselves show the wear and tear of a great many generations of young Chicagoans; historic murals in the field house have faded; even the big outdoor swimming pool has water leaking mysteriously up into it from below.

“It’s not beautiful” now, admits Park District acting assistant superintendent for research and planning Edward Uhlir. “When we get done with the restoration, it will be a transformation that the community will be overwhelmed by.” Continuing an initiative begun by former commissioner Walter Netsch, the Park District has succeeded in getting Sherman Park listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now targeting over $3 million from various sources to renovate and restore the buildings and grounds.

One of the striking things about Sherman Park is something you can’t see at all. The people who built Sherman and other parks of its vintage were reformers who believed that a more natural environment and planned recreation could mold young immigrants into good Americans. “Dirt upon the hands and faces of the children of the streets rubs off when it comes in contact with the bathing facilities of the park,” wrote Edward B. DeGroot, general director of field houses and playgrounds for the South Park Commission, in 1909. “Likewise do art and beauty ‘rub off’ in contact with young folks in the park and is no doubt carried to the homes.” And just as Sherman Park itself is about to be burnished up, the same ideas–that a good park environment can be a positive moral and social force–are sprouting once again with renewed vigor.

Like telegraphs and trains, public parks were a 19th-century invention. No one thought much about urban green spaces or playgrounds until cities became dense enough, and dangerous enough, to inspire nostalgia for the countryside. Sizable open spaces like New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Washington Park were then set aside and developed as imitation natural landscapes. People thought of them, literally, as the lungs of the city: one New York physician speculated in 1849 that a recent cholera epidemic had resulted from a lack of “electricity and oxygen” in the air, which could be supplied by “many and large spaces . . . devoted to parks.” More sophisticated observers, like pioneer landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, saw parks as a restorative contrast and antidote to the hurried selfishness of purely urban life.

It was partly in this spirit that the Illinois General Assembly authorized the creation of three separate Chicago park districts in 1869–the Lincoln, West, and South park commissions. For their first 30 years, the commissions could only develop the 1,800 or so acres of large parks they started with (among them Lincoln, Washington, Jackson, Garfield, and Douglas parks). The three park commissions in fact were legally forbidden to acquire more land–not an unreasonable restriction given that at the time the existing parks seemed ample.

The city, however, was not forbidden to grow. Nearly 300,000 people lived in Chicago when the three park commissions and the associated boulevard system were born; 30 years later the population was pushing two million, and only one more park had been added.

On the south side, John B. Sherman, a well-respected Yankee who had made his fortune in the California Gold Rush, turned the floundering Union Stock Yards into a gigantic and profitable business. The empty prairies around the yards began filling with both houses and crowded tenements. The fine Olmsted-planned parks were still around, but they were a long expensive streetcar ride away. “The South Side contains a population of 650,000,” the Chicago American reported in 1902, “yet only 24,000 persons visit Washington and Jackson Parks on pleasant Sundays.”

What the other 626,000 south-siders–most foreign-born and new to city life of any kind–might be doing instead weighed heavily on the minds of the city’s elite and upper middle class. Drinking and brawling in saloons? Gambling in stuffy alleyways? Listening–God forbid–to anarchist or socialist labor oganizers? Their children hitching rides on streetcars, fishing for rats through the wooden sidewalks, running in gangs, and taunting policemen? Probably all that and more. In Hull-House Maps and Papers, Agnes Holland described “the filthy and rotten tenements, the dingy courts and tumble-down sheds, the foul stables and dilapidated outhouses, the broken sewer-pipes, the piles of garbage fairly alive with diseased odors . . . the numbers of children filling every nook, working and playing in every room, eating and sleeping in every window-sill, pouring in and out of every door, and seeming literally to pave every scrap of ‘yard.'” The availability of parks elsewhere wasn’t making a lot of difference, she implied; the new crowded neighborhoods needed parks and playgrounds of their own.

Such sentiments did not necessarily stem from compassion so much as fear. It may be no coincidence that the country’s first urban playgrounds–piles of sand deposited at strategic locations by the city of Boston–were placed in 1886, a few months after Chicago’s Haymarket affair excited public hysteria about foreign anarchists.

Conservatives of the day saw the conditions Holland described and called for laws to shut down the saloons on Sundays and more police to knock the boys’ heads. Progressives believed that repression (or at least repression alone) was futile; better were parks and playgrounds (among other reforms) to divert energy. Mary McDowell of the University of Chicago settlement house in Packingtown wrote: “The muscle exercised on a punching bag, or a swinging club, or a turning pole or in a swimming pool, is not apt to be used to bully fellow-workers and lead to struggles against law and order.”

The first impulses toward reform came, as usual, from outside the park commissions themselves–in 1894, for instance, when Florence Kelley of Hull House publicly shamed a wealthy young man into donating the lot that held a decrepit tenement on the near west side for the city’s first playground. That in turn stimulated the interest of Henry G. Foreman, a businessman who had helped organize the Chicago Real Estate Board and the Chicago Stock Exchange. In 1902, when longtime member John Sherman died, Foreman was appointed to the South Park Commission; a year later, he became its president.

Parks have never been far from politics. Not only did they in part grow out of prosperous people’s fear of the urban masses, they also appealed to developers who wanted to raise the value of adjoining lots. (Most of Chicago’s pre-1869 scattering of parks were donations from such people. And the Tribune endorsed the 1869 park bills in these words: “The easiest way for every man in Chicago to make money is to vote for the parks.”) And parks appealed to political bosses in search of patronage jobs (the first Kansas City parkland was donated by the local machine honcho). Chicago in the Gilded Age was no different. The West Park Commission was especially notorious for flagrant waste, patronage, and neglect until reformers took it over in 1905. The South Park Commission fared somewhat better, perhaps partly because the district included downtown and its hefty tax base and reservoir of sometimes public-spirited businessmen.

At any rate, when (in a series of laws passed between 1899 and 1903) the state legislature finally bestirred itself to allow park commissioners to buy new land for parks with tax money, the South Park Commission took the lead. After a precautionary referendum and some refinements in the original law, the commission undertook simultaneous construction programs in 1903, issuing $1 million in bonds for playgrounds and then $3 million more for larger neighborhood parks. (Reformers had long been split between park and playground advocates; this evidently was the commissioners’ practical compromise.)

South Park Commission general superintendent J. Frank Foster, who had long dreamed of this development, made his plea in a speech delivered early in 1903: “The little bare-footed girls and boys about Archer Avenue and 25th Street, the curly-headed blacks in rags and filth in the Black Belt, the vicious youths at the doors of the saloons in the Stock Yards district, and the many-tongued foreign children in South Chicago, appeal to us to be saved from their apparent destiny of ill health, viciousness and crime. Let their interests dictate the location of the few playgrounds which it is now possible to provide.”

To be saved? Well, yes, of course a good park system could save the children. It was the springtime of liberalism, when Henry Foreman could assert confidently, “The new parks will be the best preventive of crime that possibly could be found. Environment is everything in the development of a child.”

A good park system could also appease clout-wielding home owners. Foster specifically condemned this as a motive for locating a park. But that seems to have been on the agenda of the Center Avenue Improvement Association, when it first (in November 1902) asked the South Park Commission to buy a tract between 51st, 55th, Loomis, and Center (now Racine). (Let’s just say the surrounding area was by no means the south side’s neediest neighborhood.) The commissioners eventually agreed, and consummated the deal in December 1903, paying $183,000 for just over 60 damp and dreary acres. Designated “South Park Number Seven,” it contained just six houses and five barns and sheds, all built on the fringes of the area.

With a total of 14 pieces of raw parkland on its hands (six under ten acres, eight over ten), the SPC decided to renew its long-standing association with the Olmsted Brothers–sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, whose reputation in Chicago remained high–as landscape architects, and Daniel Burnham as architect. There was some friction between the two firms, as indeed there always is when landscape and buildings share one finite budget. More interesting in retrospect, though, is the creative tension that developed between the designers and their clients the commissioners.

The large parks of a generation or two earlier had had carefully designed but natural-looking landscapes. The younger Olmsteds and Burnham agreed instead that the new parks should be of a formal, regular, classical design, much like the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair complex. Many of the 14 unborn parks in question were smaller than South Park Number Seven, and the Olmsteds pointed out that they simply wouldn’t have room for ornamental plantings or “curvilinear walks and irregular lawns and plantations.” “The formal style of design,” they wrote, would be “well adapted to stand the necessary wear and tear and to include all necessary fences, benches and other artificial constructions.” The standard new-park arrangement would carefully separate park users by age, sex, and activity, with the gym and pool area–where park officials held sway–aligned at one end, and less regulated areas (playing fields, paths) farther away. At Sherman Park the buildings were formally arrayed at one end of the lagoon, and the gymnasiums and changing rooms in turn surrounded the swimming pool–both arrangements echoing the 1893 World’s Fair’s famous “Court of Honor.”

Baseball, curiously enough, was not a particularly welcome addition to the parks–it was deemed too active for the old, large, “scenic” pleasure grounds, and too unruly for the progressives’ carefully zoned playgrounds –but it actually served the landscape design very well, according to Chicago Park District architectural historian William Tippens. The ball fields offered long tree-framed views of a distant focal point, the park field house.

The ideas of parks and playgrounds were imported, but Chicago invented the field house–half settlement house, half gymnasium. “Parks had long since had refectories, boathouses, and other buildings geared toward specific uses,” write Tippens and CPD preservation planning supervisor Julia Sniderman. “However, Foster’s vision required a building which would combine educational and social purposes with those of indoor athletics. . . . The new building type generally included a branch of the public library, a lunch room, club rooms, and assembly rooms. In addition, it enabled active recreation to take place in the parks even during Chicago’s bitter winters.”

While Edward Bennett of Burnham’s firm was busy designing the world’s first field houses, the Olmsteds were colliding with Foster and Foreman over the rigid design they had proposed for South Park Number Seven. The South Park commissioners objected that it would cost too much–the formal, squared-off waterway, for instance, would have to be walled in all around its circumference. Besides, such a design didn’t leave enough room for playing fields.

John C. Olmsted complained of the commissioners’ “prejudice” against classical design; with Burnham’s support, he urged Foreman “to stick to the formal design.” Even after Foreman ordered him to prepare an alternative version with an irregular waterway, Olmsted still hoped the commissioners would see the light.

Instead, client and architect reached the delightful compromise we see today, with an informal waterway whose surroundings become more formal as you move north toward the field house. Even the four bridges across the lagoon change in character as you move from Garfield toward 52nd.

In August 1904 the commissioners named South Park Number Seven after John B. Sherman, whose enterprise at the Stock Yards had laid the economic foundation for the neighborhood and who had served nearly 25 years on the commission. The park was formally dedicated October 21, 1905, at a ceremony where popular Congregational minister Reverend Frank Gunsaulus, founding president of Armour Institute of Technology (now IIT), spoke to more than 1,000 people. (Not satisfied, he urged the creation of a county “forest reserve.”) The Tribune observed, “It was a gala day for the children of the neighborhood. Hundreds of boys and girls flocked to the greensward and played for the first time in the gymnasium.” (Even in those days, the Trib was a little lazy about its city coverage: SPC records indicate that the gymnasiums had actually been open since September 23.)

According to the commission’s 1905 annual report, they had their choice of three tennis courts, two baseball diamonds, football field, skating house, toboggan slide, wading pool, sand court, music court (with bandstand, just west of the field house), refectory, running track, enclosed playground, assembly hall, and reading room. Men and women had their own separate showers, baths, indoor and outdoor gymnasiums, and club rooms. The two-story field house itself was flanked by attached one-story octagonal pavilions–one housed the not-for-profit cafeteria, the other (from 1907 until the 1930s) a branch of the Chicago Public Library. Thirty-six rowboats were available for rent, and a gas-powered barge with seats for 56 cruised the lagoon (five cents a ride).

But opening the park was only the first step. Now it was up to the South Park commissioners to make sure that the right things happened in it and the wrong things didn’t. One of the “right things,” which might not occur to us today, was showers. The commission provided free towels and soap so that neighborhood residents without running water could wash up. During that first month, October 1905, when the swimming pool was not yet ready, 2,906 men and 855 women used the Sherman Park showers. (In December 1911, with the park well established, the district counted 6,000 shower users.)

A Chicago Post reporter with an underemployed imagination noted that 12 new south-side parks had given 650,810 shower baths in 1905. “These figures may mean either that 650,810 individual men, women and children had at least one soaking during the year, or that 18,078 individuals took weekly baths. But, at any rate, the value to society is self-evident. Or, if the shower baths were combined to drench one human being of colossal proportions, such a person might be at least 600 miles high and weigh 234,291,600 pounds, or 117,145 tons, and he might not.”

When the 1907 National Recreation Congress met in Chicago to see the new parks, Mary McDowell described Sherman Park as “situated among second generation foreigners, mostly English speaking people, [with] thirteen organizations, eight social clubs, one lodge meeting, one park athletic club, one association, one high school fraternity, and one probation officer meets juvenile court wards there.” She urged that Sherman and other field houses be opened to all kinds of meetings: “Trade unions find it very difficult to secure a meeting place unconnected with a saloon. What would be the effect upon the deliberations of working men to have their surroundings beautiful and orderly?” The question, of course, was rhetorical–few doubted that there would be a noticeable effect, and a good one.

Park work focused most of all on children, especially those roughly two-thirds of Chicago children who left school to work before entering ninth grade. The South Park Commission’s E.B. DeGroot wrote in 1905 of a “typical” case (which could well have come from the polyglot stockyards neighborhood): “One of our league basket ball teams is composed of an Italian, a Russian Jew, a Frenchman, a Swede and an Irishman. These young boys (working boys, who should be in school) are not only receiving the valuable physical and mental training afforded by the playing of the game, but they are co-operating in an effort to accomplish a common objective and in honor of a common name, subjecting themselves at all times to proper authority, law and order.”

Free-form play was not enough. In the progressive view, it needed to be directed and organized by people carefully selected (as we would now say) to be good role models. As early as 1905, the SPC advised its gymnastic and athletic instructors to call their charges by name, to praise them whenever possible, not to preach, to be scrupulously polite, and always to appear “neatly dressed, cleanly shaved and with hair well cared for.

“On the athletic field [and in the gymnasium] . . . the instructor should praise every tendency of a boy or girl to sacrifice himself or herself for the good of the team. . . . If you can develop this spirit you have laid the foundation of co-operation, politeness and good morals. . . . [Our work] is perhaps better calculated to raise the standard of good citizenship than any other single agency in the hands of public servants.”

But not all games were so uplifting. Ball players–especially working boys with some money at hand–often wanted to bet on the outcome, something the park officials took a dim view of. “Gambling gives rise to many quarrels, fights and abrupt endings,” fretted DeGroot in 1909, “necessitating enforcement of discipline.” Requiring teams to register in advance to use the baseball diamonds helped some, but “bad practices . . . are insidious and difficult to detect.”

Park organizers were also anxious to “zone” the park for recreation; the Olmsteds at one point recommended that they reuse bricks from demolished structures to provide “walls for the various subdivisions . . . for the efficient and systematic grouping of the children and others engaged in games and amusement.” It is perhaps easier for today’s historians to see the irony of this. Most south-siders working in factories at the time were the first generation in the families to do so and to be subject to industrial regimentation and discipline. Galen Cranz writes in her The Politics of Park Design, “The reform park offered urban populations leisure experience . . . that was nearly as rigid in its organization [as, say, the stockyards them- selves]. Parks, like business firms and schools, followed an industrial model: age segregation, specialization of function, and a horror of waste.” Historian Paul Boyer even describes a model playground in Rochester, New York, where children were assembled for the benefit of playground conference delegates. At the stroke of a gong they began to play, “the younger ones turning out identical, symmetrical sand pies!”

Eventually, the reform park movement became a victim of its own success. What had been a crusade became a routine; parks began to be taken for granted by both neighbors and employees. For a variety of reasons–immigration restriction and the jingoistic unity fostered by World War I being two–the upper classes grew less fearful of urban uprisings, and the green safety valves became bureaucracies. With the end of the reform movement, writes William Tippens, “the innovative landscapes developed by the designers at the turn of the century no longer held social significance and most were torn out and replaced with six acres of ball fields.”

In 1915, the South Park’s new director of playgrounds and sports boasted that “it is no longer necessary . . . to preach the need of wholesome recreation and out-of-door life. We have gone over to the questions of efficient operation and maximum use of facilities entirely.” Even more complacently, W.B. Van Ingen wrote an “appreciation” of the south-side parks in the October 1921 issue of Landscape Architecture: “The problem of combating the inherently destructive forces of the modern city packing box existence has been met and solved.”

From the vantage point of Sherman Park’s generous 50-meter swimming pool, you can look down and across 52nd Street. On your right are the spires of Saint John of God Church; on your left are the blackened rooflines of four burned-out, boarded-up houses.

As this vista suggests, Sherman’s more recent history has been one of struggle. In a neighborhood that went from white to black in the 1960s and early 1970s, the park did not benefit from the racist pre-Harold Washington administration of the Chicago Park District. Longtime local letter carrier Lawrence Watson remembers, “After Harold Washington was elected, all my parks started getting literature from headquarters–they never did before.”

Kirsten Jackson has lived across from Sherman Park for 15 years, and remembers it as being “pretty segregated” when her family moved in–blacks on the south end, Hispanics on the north. Even as that tense situation mellowed, she recalls park officials offering “just money –no caring. One year they resodded the middle [the island] and it was closed all summer. They said the seeds didn’t take or something, and there was no baseball.”

As recently as 1977, the park is said to have hosted a whites-only weight-lifting club. Sun-Times reporters toured the area for their monumental 1979 series on city park conditions, and described Sherman as “beginning to look shabbily genteel.”

Up close, it looked worse than that. Barbara Dyson, active in the Organization for New City, which has had a long-standing concern with the park, described the water in the late 1970s as “disgraceful,” with “a grease or scum all across the pond.” Joyce Wiggins, who works at the Sherman Park branch library (now located on the park’s edge facing Racine), remembers that when she started there in 1982 the lagoon was obscured by cattails, cars, tires, and pieces of furniture–“You could almost walk on it.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the greatest threat to Sherman Park’s historic landscape appeared around 1980, when a park administration in a hurry to spend extra money in minority areas proposed filling the lagoon to make more space for baseball diamonds, and got some neighborhood support. Erma Tranter of Friends of the Parks recalls working with the Organization for New City to defeat that idea. Since 1986 the Chicago Urban Fishing Program has stocked the lagoon with almost 3,000 pounds per year of channel catfish and bullheads for a very popular “put-and-take” fishery.

Even now, with the Park District in relatively sympathetic hands (and also more decentralized) for a change, local problems can keep Sherman Park managers hopping. (The surrounding neighborhoods of New City, Englewood, and West Englewood are neither the south side’s best-off nor its poorest.

“Every place has gang problems,” says park supervisor Albert Jefferson, sounding a bit like his turn-of-the-century predecessors. “If gangbangers come in here, they can be part of the program. If you put them out on the street, they’re a problem. In here, they’re using their energy to do something constructive.”

Still, Jefferson had his hands full when he came to the park in 1986. The pool was routinely overcrowded–800 in space for 300–and people had become accustomed to walking in in street clothes, without showering. “I wouldn’t even let my son in the pool,” says Jackson, “unless I dragged my lawn chair over to watch.” Jefferson re-established a schedule (separate hours for different age groups) and control of numbers.

Beginning in 1987, the park’s advisory council has worked with Jefferson and Park District higher-ups to get blockades on some entrances (to prevent school buses and other traffic from making speedy short-cuts through the play area), to replace broken equipment and hard concrete surfaces in the three playlots, and to get picnic tables installed. Park activities now include ballet, basketball, tumbling, preschool, volleyball, music, art, and dramatics. Teachers from Libby School across the street make use of it. Last year Sherman hosted its first annual bicycle race and barbecue contest; this summer’s June 17 boulevard-lakefront bicycle tour will pass Sherman Park’s south edge.

“Some people that live closer to Ogden Park like this one better,” says Jackson, “so they come here.” But those not in the know could miss Sherman Park altogether because it is so well sheltered from the street. “I was born and raised in Chicago,” says Fuller Host Park manager Rick Booker, “and lived on the south side close to 30 years. But even though I drove past it all the time, I’d never been in Sherman Park until I came to work for the district two years ago.”

Now that the park has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the district is targeting serious money at more than just patchwork: $500,000 to drain, dredge, and refurbish the lagoon ($100,000 will come from the U.S. EPA if a currently pending grant application is approved); $1.75 million for the field house (including restoring windows where they have been blocked up and restoring the historic murals); $175,000 to repair the bridges; $50,000 for road repairs; $20,000 for a new boiler; $200,000 in Build Illinois funds to replace the pergolas. (Alderman Carter even says that the four burn-outs just north of the park are “all in court,” with action promised within the year.)

“The previous approach,” says Ed Uhlir of the Park District, “was to fix what needed fixing in an emergency sense–so from the neighborhood standpoint, nothing was getting accomplished. We think it’s important to do a complete job, and involve the residents in planning it, so that the community will have pride in the buildings. At Cafe Brauer [in Lincoln Park] people are overwhelmed by the restoration, and it was always there, didn’t have its windows filled in, etc. I think this transformation is going to be much more striking.” He says it could be completed as early as the fall of 1991.

In these more cautious (or more cynical) days, no one claims that a Sherman Park restored to something like its 1905 grandeur will eradicate crime, poverty, drug abuse, or the tendency of some neighborhood residents to wash their cars directly in front of the field house. But it can’t hurt. (Old-time theories of the benefits of greenery are even getting some confirmation. Recent research summarized by Herbert Schroeder of Chicago’s USDA North Central Forest Experiment Station indicates that natural scenes tend to lower stress, as measured by muscle tension and skin conductance, and promote recovery in surgical patients.)

“I think declaring Sherman Park a national landmark is a real boost to the community,” says Alderman Carter. “It gives them something to rally around. And of course everything around it should then upgrade itself.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof, courtesy Chicago Park District Special Collections.