Portage Park served as magnet for immigrants

Published in 12-31-08 Press Newspaper and 1-3-09 Reporter Newspaper

by Brian Nadig

The landscaping, swimming lagoon and other features of Portage Park sparked thousands of immigrants to move from the crowded areas of Chicago to the Northwest Side 90 years ago.

Many immigrants wanted their children to play on green fields, away from the "concrete jungle" of the city's industrial enclaves, said Jefferson Park Historical Society vice president Dan Pogorzelski. "The property most valued became right around the park," Pogorzelski said.

The society recently held a seminar on the history of the Portage Park community. Pogorzelski and society president John Maloof are co-authors of the book "Portage Park."

Three years after the park partially opened at Central Avenue and Irving Park Road in 1913, a sand bottom lagoon was installed, and the small hills which still exist in the park were formed by the dirt which was dug out to create the lagoon, Pogorzelski said. The lagoon was replaced by Works Progress Administration workers during the 19030s Depression by a kidney shaped concrete pool, which in 1959 was replaced by a Olympic-sized pool for the Pan American games. Olympic gold medalist Mark Spitz set world records at the pool in 1972, when the U.S. Olympic swim trials were held at the park.

While neighborhoods near the park were sometimes segregated by ethnicity, those cultural barriers did not carry over to the park, Pogorzelski said. Children of different backgrounds played together and attended the same classes, and each year thousands of residents gathered for a Fourth of July celebration at the park, he said.

"The park is where all these bonds were formed, (and) the 'German' became 'German-American,'" Pogorzelski said.

Construction of a second, much smaller, park in the area was completed in 1914 at Belle Plaine and Lavergne avenues. The triangular-shaped Dickinson Park 1914 is named after the family which operated the nearby Dickinson Tavern and Inn, which was built in 1841 at what is now Milwaukee Avenue and Belle Plaine.

Pogorzelski said that the two-story brick tavern had a rich history, including reports that Abraham Lincoln stayed there before he became president. The jog which Milwaukee takes at Belle Plaine is believed to have resulted from the objections raised by the tavern's proprietor, who convinced surveyors to spare the property from condemnation.

he Dickinson was the site of a meeting in 1850 at which the Town of Jefferson was incorporated, and the town hall operated in the tavern from about 1850 to 1852. The Dickinson also was home to the area's post office for many years. When the tavern was demolished in 1929 to make way for a paint store, newspaper accounts at the time reported that is was the oldest building in the city. Although it was later learned that at least one other structure was older than the Dickinson, its demolition started a preservation movement in the city Pogorzelski said.

One of the most historic events in the area's commercial district occurred in 1938 when the opening of the Sears Department Store, 4730 W. Irving Park Road, attracted a crowd of 100,000, Pogorzelski said. The building, which had a Hillman's grocery store in its basement, featured the largest window display in the city outside the Loop, and during World War II an estimated 15,000 shoppers showed up one day to purchase an item that had become scarce during the war.

The store was one of four which Sears had built at a cost of 1 million each following an 8 year study of shopping habits, Pogorzelski said.

"They wanted to build a store which would get customers to buy the most stuff," Pogorzelski  said. "At the time, they built the store so there would be no natural light. They came to the conclusion that customers preferred merchandise that was displayed with artificial light."

Pogorzelski noted that more than 70 years after it opened, Sears remains the anchor of the Six Corners shopping district.

 

Portage Park Lagoon

Portage Park Lagoon

Construction of the Six Corners Sears store can be seen in the photo below, which are courtesy of the Sears Holding Archives. The other photo shows the store's large window display and night. A crowd of an estimated 100,000 people turned out for the grand opening of the store.

Construction of Sears Building  Finished Sears Storefront