Chicago architecture is the envy of other cities. And it should be; with heavyweights Mies van der Rohe, Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright behind the design of many well-known early skyscrapers, the city’s reputation was destined to soar to global heights. Yet there’s an unsung hero of the architectural world right along the streets of Chicago neighborhoods: the fieldhouses. These stately buildings, which continue to operate today as community centers all over the city, became the templates of a national movement to incorporate community services where residents lived and played. We learned these five fun facts about Chicago fieldhouses:
1. Chicago is the birthplace of the fieldhouse.
Inspired by Jane Addams Hull-House, whose mission was to provide support to immigrants on the West Side, Chicago’s first fieldhouses were places that people could grab a hot meal, take English lessons and receive immunizations. Park district officials were realizing that, “Parks could be more than passive spaces,” said Julia Barbach, Chicago Park District Historian. “They were considered a vehicle of social reform.”
2. Chicago’s original fieldhouses were built in wealthy neighborhoods.
Chicago used to have 22 separate park districts, some with deeper pockets than others, which is why some buildings have sprawling, resort-like amenities, including colonnades, cooking schools and murals. Soon, middle class neighborhoods took notice and wanted to erect their own similar facilities. Barbach said, “There was a mentality, ‘Every good neighborhood has a park, and every neighborhood must have a fieldhouse.’”
3. Each fieldhouse had its own architect, and some were the best of that period.
Hence the individual touches. Clarence Hatzfeld, whose projects included Indian Boundary Park and Athletic Field Park, tended to do red brick and Revival-style buildings. Some fieldhouses paid tribute to the land upon which they were built. Indian Boundary, named after a treaty between the Pottawattomie Indians and U.S. government, showcases Native American-themed details, from tomtom light fixtures to Indian heads. During the Great Depression, the Park District also had its pick of talented architects‑Daniel Burnham, Alfred Caldwell and Edwin Clark, for example‑due to a lack of jobs.
4. Fieldhouses expanded the seasonality of Chicago’s parks.
As fieldhouses added club rooms and auditoriums, the idea of a spring- and summer-only park went by the wayside. Resides could rely on them year-round for recreational programs and social services. Today, the Park District has an estimated 300 staffed park locations with fieldhouses large and small, which host meetings, classes and fitness activities.
5. The collective efforts impressed Teddy Roosevelt.
When Chicago’s park districts decided to streamline into three commissions in 1869, Roosevelt called their plans to build in social, recreational and educational programs, “the most notable civic achievement in any American city."