They filled in the goldfish pond before I was born. Removed the rock walk, pergolas, and stone pillars marking entrances to the park. Never built the sunken garden and the horseshoe, handball and volleyball courts.
These structures appeared in multiple versions of not-fully-realized plans for Hollywood Park on Chicago’s North Side. The park had the misfortune of coming into existence just before the Great Depression and growing up during World War II. Hard times for everyone, especially recreational spaces.
Founded in 1926 by the Hollywood Park Commission and taken over by the Chicago Park District in 1934, Hollywood Park started out at 2.75 acres, half its current size. Plans and blueprints dating back to 1936 tell the story of a different way of thinking about park landscaping.
Over the years, the plans changed but the vision remained the same: Hollywood Park was to be a gentle breath of fresh country air. An escape from the city’s overcrowded grid. Meandering paths and stands of trees made up spacious outdoor “rooms.” As visitors strolled the gravel walks, they’d be pleasantly surprised by new vistas around each bend.
It was a park designed more for eyes than limbs. Trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals were planted in great variety and abundance along the edges of small meadows. You could stroll, you could picnic, but you could not play football, softball or basketball.
The ice skating pond was, however, there from the beginning. In the 1930s skaters could warm up inside the original field house, which looked a lot like the house in the woods where the Seven Dwarves lived. Built by the WPA, it measured 20 feet by 30 feet.
In 1956 the Chicago Park District gave Hollywood Park a new look. Clearly the improvements were conceived with baby boomers in mind. Trees and gardens were replaced by sports fields and children’s play areas.
And the new fieldhouse seemingly was designed to fulfill a single criteria: build an edifice that can’t be vandalized.
In August 1956 work on the bunker was completed. If you look to the right of fieldhouse in the above photograph, between the two trees with dark trunks, you can maybe see the faint outline of our beloved cement block. We would hoist ourselves to the top, sit on its bumpy scraping surface for hours, with no idea what purpose it served. Does anyone know?
The park has far fewer trees now that it did back in 1956. Some were removed for the sports fields and some died from Dutch elm disease. Less money spent on replacing landscaping and more on maintaining tennis courts, softball diamonds and a basketball court located on the exact spot where the original plans called for horseshoe, handball and volleyball courts.
Its fate was sealed, I suppose, with the opening of one of the earliest McDonald’s in Chicago across the street. Hollywood Park became, in the words, of someone who grew up in the neighborhood, “every kid’s social life.” I’ve asked people from the neighborhood if they know when kids started hanging out at the park. Here’s a few answers:
“When I first moved to Hollywood Park in the early 1950s, the Park had a rock garden with water pools, which was a nice place to sit and read.”
“Regarding MacDonald’s, I’m guessing it was opened in ’58 0r ’59. I remember we were there at the Park every day on our bikes and would ask them every day when they were opening.”
“I began high school in ’62. I believe that we learned of the gathering of kids at Hollywood Pk from teens at Lincoln Village or Kiddieland in ’63.” –from someone who grew up in nearby West Rogers Park.
Back to the Future
Hollywood Park still was the neighborhood hangout when I started going there in seventh grade and it was throughout my high school years. There were, and this is an understatement, a lot of kids at the park every night. An unspoken rule restricted the youngest kids to the area around the fieldhouse, by the cement block, and gave older teens free rein over the benches along the path leading towards McDonald’s.
I don’t know when neighborhood kids stopped going to Hollywood Park. Maybe the opening of the much larger and better appointed Peterson Park on the grounds of the former Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium and the demise of neighborhood schools in Chicago were factors. The posted signs announcing the park closes at 8:30 p.m. point to other explanations.
Several times over this past summer I visited Hollywood Park and each time I was struck with the stillness of the place. Now entering its eighth decade, Hollywood Park has become what the original park commissioners envisioned back in 1926–an escape from the noise and crowds of the city.
All photographs, except the cement block, courtesy of Chicago Park District Special Collections. Thanks to Mike Fisher for the cement block photograph.
Thanks to Julia Bachrach, Dept. of Planning and Development, Chicago Park District, for sharing her time and knowledge.
Related links: Chicago Park District’s Hollywood Park page. On this blog, The Abandoned Fieldhouse: History of a Chicago Neighborhood Park.
Read more about Chicago park landscaping in Inspired by Nature: The Garfield Park Conservatory and Chicago’s West Side (Amazon affiliate link)