Historian’s Road Trip

This summer my family took a road trip out to the western Chicago suburbs to support some research I have been doing on the creation of Argonne National Laboratory.

Argonne was located near Lemont along the Illinois and Michigan Canal because it offered large space for development and was proximate to Chicago by car owing to U.S. 66 nearby.

My interest was in getting a sense of this area when Argonne was being scouted and opened, and what the towns were like — particularly Lemont, Naperville, and Downers Grove. I decided we would take the Illinois WPA guide, produced only about a decade before the site selection, to help us understand what was there and appreciate what had grown. As you might imagine, there was quite a bit of growth, befitting communities described by historian Michael Ebner as “boom burgs.”

DOWNERS GROVE, 11.2 m (717 alt., 8,977 pop.), incorporated in 1873, was named for its founder, Pierce Downer, who emigrated from Rutland, Vermont, in 1832. He settled at the intersection of two Potawatomi trails, between what are now Oakwood and Linscott Avenues, and Grant and Lincoln Streets. The exact site is marked by the DOWNER MONUMENT, which consists of a bronze tablet imbedded in a granite boulder from the foundation of Downer’s barn.

Maple Avenue today

Downers Grove, a commuting suburb, has quiet shaded streets; Maple Avenue (47th St.) is bordered with century-old maples planted by settlers in hope of obtaining a sugar supply. The necessity for the local production of sugar had been overcome by the time the trees matured, and they were never tapped.

The Avery Coonley Experimental School

The AVERY COONLEY EXPERIMENTAL SCHOOL (visiting by appointment), 1400 Maple St., is nationally known among educators. Opened in 1911 with two free kindergartens, it now includes the elementary grades. Teaching methods are based on the theory outlined in Education Moves Ahead, by Eugene Randolph Smith, president of the Progressive Education Association.

The highway skirts the northern limited of NAPERVILLE 18.7 m (693 alt., 5,118 pop.). Shortly after the first settlers immigrated her in 1831 the Black Hawk War forced them to flee to Fort Dearborn. Returning with a company of volunteers, they built a stockade known as Fort Payne in June 1832. The settlement profited from the caravans of covered wagons rolling west from Fort Dearborn, and by 1833 its population numbered 180.

The first settler in Du Page County was Bailey Hobson, who staked his claim in 1830, returned the following year, and established a grist mill. In 1832 came Joseph Naper, who built the first saw mill and platted the town site. Naperville became county seat in 1839, a distinction it retained until 1868 when Wheaton ended a long legal dispute by forcibly removing the records.

Reconstruction of Pre-Emption House

The most famous of the old buildings in Naperville is the PREEMPTION HOUSE, northeast corner S. Main St. and Chicago Ave., a two-story frame structure of Greek Revival design built in 1834. For years it was the most renowned tavern in the region; it is now occupied by a saloon.

Former site of the Robert N. Murray House

Other buildings of Naperville’s early years are…the ROBERT N. MURRAY HOUSE (private), 215 N. Main St., a one-story frame structure with an excellent doorway of Greek Revival design…

Site of the old Bailey Hobson Town House

The richest historically of Naperville’s old houses is the BAILEY HOBSON TOWN HOUSE (private, except to teachers and students of history), 506 S. Washington St. Built in the 1840’s, the two-story frame structure, houses a large library and a wealth of early records and pioneer furnishings.

Old Main at North Central

NORTH CENTRAL COLLEGE, School Ave. and Brainard St., a co-educational institution maintained by the Evangelical Church, was founded at Plainfield in 1861. In 1870 the college was moved to Naperville, occupying the north and central sections of OLD MAIN, a limestone structure of Italian Gothic design. The average enrollment of the college is 500.

Kroehler Furniture Manufacturing in Naperville

The KROEHLER COMPANY MAIN PLANT (tours arranged by application in advance), between Ellsworth and Loomis Sts., was established here as the Naperville Lounge Factory and is now one of the world’s largest manufacturers of upholstered furniture. [From Tour 13]

Downtown Lemont, IL

LEMONT, 26.9 m (605 alt., 2,582 pop.), an old towpath town, raises its hill-crowned head amount the trees. [From Tour 22]

Obama Presidential Library Part 2

To continue my discussion from Part 1, not only should the Obama Presidential Library and Museum be located in Chicago, it should be affiliated with the University of Chicago. This is not a particularly controversial proposition — many of the libraries since FDR are affiliated with or located near an institution of higher education: FDR with Marist, Kennedy with UMass-Boston, Johnson with Texas, Nixon with CSU Fullerton, Ford with Michigan, Bush I with TAMU, Clinton with Arkansas-Little Rock, and Bush II with SMU.

The Obamas’ relationship with the University is clear and strong, intellectually and institutionally. Efforts to affiliate with a public institution like UIC would be a wonderful gesture at inclusiveness, but it’s not clear they have the capacity to support the institution (though UIC could probably spare some land).

The question of land hangs on any University of Chicago location. The institution is in the middle of a significant redevelopment and expansion effort with new hospital buildings, a new library and more on the way. The logistics and disruptiveness of a location contiguous with the main campus are likely too difficult to overcome, as residential neighborhoods pin down the university on the east and the area between the campus and Washington Park is limited.

The Woodlawn neighborhood makes a great deal of sense and the University of Chicago is in part responsible for its current difficult circumstances. President Obama’s own position with the University of Chicago Law School makes this area even more poignant as a locale for the library and museum.

The Laird Bell Law Quadrangle was conceived of and constructed in the midst of the University of Chicago’s key neighborhood interventions of the 1950s, opening in 1959. As the demographic transformation of the Great Migration reached Hyde Park, the university felt threatened by the incoming population of poor and working class African Americans and by the new class of exploitative landlords who converted grand apartment buildings into cramped kitchenette units. Hoping to insulate themselves from Woodlawn, in particular, the neighborhood south of the Midway Plaisance that saw the greatest growth in black population, university leaders worked to take all of the land between 60th and 61st Street and extend the campus, while they also promoted the construction of a highway that would separate the University of Chicago from the neighborhood. I talk about this a bit in my article on the U of C and in a chapter of my book manuscript.

The university bought up properties that they feared landlords would convert to the rooming houses. In some cases, the U of C neglected the properties and let areas deteriorate in order to facilitate their own redevelopment plans. Uncertainty about the area hung over the neighborhood, so many landlords did not invest in their property, expecting that it would eventually be taken by eminent domain. By walling off the U of C community–the highway effort failed but the institution pursued other measures–wealth and investment was directed to Hyde Park and segregated from the Woodlawn community, intensifying the disparities between the two communities. The university eventually did take control of the mile of land between Washington Park and the Illinois Central rail lines south of the Midway and pursued its own redevelopment projects there.

The Obama library would, necessarily, resonate as another of these interventionist redevelopment projects. Even despite that it could be a spur to economic, social, and intellectual development *for the resident population* in the neighborhood.

First, it must have a design that engages the neighborhood, overcoming the frequent challenges of security, parking, and signature starchitecture. People will come from around the city, the state, the region, the country, and the world to visit the Obama Museum and Library. Many of them will come in their cars, requiring a great deal of parking that could be an obstacle to public engagement. The LBJ museum, even though it is in a pretty big city and is on the edge of a large university campus, is fairly separated and isolated from everyday pedestrian life in Austin. You would either drive to that edge of campus, or you would have a looong walk to get there, even as a student. Same with the Ford Library in Ann Arbor on the University of Michigan’s North Campus (The Ford Museum in Grand Rapids is better placed in this regard.) Same with the JFK Library in Boston — a train will get you about a mile away, then a bus will get you there, but it can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re not from Boston or familiar with the T system.

A Sanborn map of the Woodlawn area from 1926.

A location in Woodlawn has the possibility of drawing tourists via public transportation, especially elevated CTA Green line, which terminates at 63rd and Cottage Grove. There is also a Metra regional rail line with a stop on the east edge of Hyde Park that could handle some of this. The use of public transportation by visitors would limit the number of cars and make the parking facilities less sprawling, keeping the whole area more urban and walkable. This is desirable because the point of placing the library in Woodlawn would not be to turn the area into a bourgeois suburban playspace, but to bring an asset and development to the neighborhood without overrunning it. Visitors staying at a hotel in the Loop could take the CTA down for the morning, spend a few hours at the library and either head to Hyde Park for lunch (not well connected to the El) or go back up to the Loop — even if they drove to Chicago there would be no need to drive to the library. The key would be putting the library within about 3 or 4 blocks of a train stop. You could run a shuttle bus to the library, but I favor having tourists do some walking, maybe to buy a coffee or a drink on the way at the shops that would inevitably spring up to serve the library visitors. (No doubt there would be some political and legal wrangling, but even a location at the southwest corner of Washington Park near the DuSable Museum of African American history seems plausible to me.)

View Larger Map

Second, it should have a robust educational outreach program and an archival/museological/historical training program. It’s quite clear that the election of Barack Obama as president has enabled parents and teachers of black children (and minorities of all races and ethnicities) to tell their kids and students that anything is possible for African Americans — even leader of the free world (see Ta-Nehisi Coates for a recent example attesting to this.) That kind of priceless inspiration — from someone in their own city — could have oven more import, be even more directly felt, and have even more of a lasting legacy through a presidential library integrated into the community. Such an institutional commitment would come not just through regular school field trips, but especially at the high school level, to teach students about the process of doing research, of handling (conserved) archival materials, and of creating knowledge about politics and public policy, President Obama, his administration, and race in the 21st century. Such an asset would be unparalleled for an urban school system like Chicago Public Schools and could turn Woodlawn into a more desirable neighborhood for residency. Ironically, it would be something like this that would fulfill the University of Chicago’s long-held desire to promote development and middle-class residence in Woodlawn — not demolition, but, through engagement, a process of market-based demographic succession.

Would this take more staff? Yes. Would it take a different set of priorities in planning for the library and museum? Yes. Would it be a greater planning challenge? Probably not — any presidential library is a significant planning challenge, and it is simply a matter of priorities and values. While it might take more money, President Obama has certainly illustrated his ability to draw on generous donors for his political campaigns — devoting such effort to something that would not only preserve his legacy, but enhance it, seems to me to be a simple question.

The Obama Presidential Library, Part One

Discussion about the location of the Obama Presidential Library and Museum has been surfacing in a handful of media sources (and fan sites). Most recently, the Chicago Sun-Times published an article with pre-emptive criticism of an effort to bring the Obama library to the University of Chicago.

“I want to raise the alarm because I think a presidential museum will inevitably become our university’s highest-profile institution on a national basis,” Political Science Professor Charles Lipson said. “It will not be a disinterested, scholarly institution. It will be advancing a political agenda, funded by President Obama’s political allies, including foreign donors who cannot give money to his presidential campaigns.”

The Reagan Library in California attracts conservative speakers and serves as a launching pad for Republican ideas, Lipson said.

We can rather easily dismiss this as nonsense. Not that it is gibberish, but that it is overstating a criticism of presidential libraries in fundamentally meaningless ways. While initial capital funds for presidential libraries are raised privately, and largely from political allies and sympathetic donors, this is not inherently a problem. After the construction of a building, the National Archives and Records Administration populates the staff with non-political, thoroughly professional staff, including academic and public historians, and assumes almost all operational costs. Often there is a private foundation that provides some other funds for programs or researchers, as well. This kind of public-private partnership results in a better, more robust physical plant than the federal government would invest in, so up-front private fundraising makes sense and is a fairly responsible engagement with private interests.* As for programs and scholars, I question Lipson’s familiarity with the work of the presidential museums and libraries. A quick peek at the Gerald Ford Museum programs in 2012, for example, include a speaker on Bob Hope, a speaker on Michigan Football, a speaker on energy issues in the Ford administration, a speaker on the assassination of James Garfield, and three journalists on presidents, the legacy of Vietnam, and the growth of the national security state. The Lyndon Johnson Library and Museum has a similarly mixed though higher profile list: Christopher Buckley, Laura Bush, Stephen Breyer, Sissy Spacek, Bill Moyers, and Mikhail Gorbachev, among others. Are Christopher Buckley and Laura Bush’s political bona fides really in question?

Opposition to an Obama Presidential Library and Museum on political grounds is not a serious criticism. If there is one legitimate criticism that can be made of presidential libraries, it is against the Reagan Museum and Library, which did not employ adequate professional staff and procedures and suffered the theft of thousands (possibly even tens of thousands) of artifacts, according to an audit by the Office of the Inspector General.

The two competitor locales would seem to be the other places with strong associations with Obama, Hawai’i (likely the University of Hawai’i) where the president was born, and Cambridge/Harvard, where he went to law school. Harvard and Boston seem less likely, as there is already the Kennedy museum and library, and Obama will never have the strength of association with Harvard that Kennedy did. Indeed, Chicago is Obama’s Boston — the place he lived and represented as an adult, the city he chose to establish his identity and power base.

*I offer the caveat that in many cases the starchitect designs often leave something to be desired in terms of engagement with surroundings.

See Part 2 on the Obama Presidential Library and Museum.

Historic Aerial Photography – Soil Conservation Service

Next up in blogging the book project is a return to aerial photography.

Background: during the New Deal, agriculture was a key priority, and soil a specific component of that — see, for example, Don Worster’s The Dust Bowl. So the Department of Agriculture set up the Soil Conservation Service which photographically documented land coverage and usage through aerial photography across the country. The whole country.

Right now you’re already probably salivating at the thought of what this could tell historians, and especially urban historians. These still exist and are in storage in the National Archives (off-site I’m told, not at I or II). Some states and areas have been digitized, but it is hit or miss by state. They have been digitized for the State of Illinois, which is great. I came across these before, but the University of Illinois has actually done one better and made this a better, more accessible resource by making the interface and file management simpler. Find the county within Illinois, then use the schematic index to find the image. You can easily download the individual images. Here’s one.

Foregoing the cumbersome MrSID viewer can make these seem less accessible, but you can pull several images together on your own if you have Photoshop (access) or maybe Photosynth. Basically, take the image and trim off any black border with the crop tool — this is just an artifact of the film sheet in the holder from the 30s. Find all the images you want and do this with all of them. Then, using the Photomerge tool in Photoshop, select all of the images that are contiguous and run it. It takes a little while (5 to 10 minutes) and some decent computing power, but Photoshop pulls these together (and does the minor necessary warping of any images to make them match automatically) and puts out a composite image. So from the above, with about twenty-four images, you can get this:

The above is the area where Argonne National Laboratory is now. The small town at the bottom is Lemont, IL. Route 66 was just two lanes in this area and cut diagonally from lower left to upper right. The body of water is the Michigan and Illinois Canal. A good bit of the immediate area is now forest preserve, but there has also been much development, including I-55 and I-355, which would both be on-screen here, as well as Bolingbrook and places like Naperville, a little farther to the north. Either way, building these composite images from such a great resource is a wonderful way to get a sense of spatial change from the late 1930s.

Happy hunting!

Holdout Oriented Design

I’m going to have an article coming out in the Journal of Planning History, part of an issue on postwar university planning and urban renewal. My contribution is about the University of Chicago and comes from my dissertation research. The nature of the piece meant that I could not include some of the most interesting parts, particularly related to building design, so I’m providing it here for public consumption.

The University of Chicago was worried about neighborhood racial transition in the 1950s and set upon an area management strategy led by Julian Levi, a lawyer and planner, through the South East Chicago Commission, and Lawrence Kimpton, the UC president. In the late 1950s Kimpton began to contact metro Chicago education institutions and tried to interest them in moving to Hyde Park in order to spur redevelopment and clear out residential blocks (examples include Barat College, McCormick Theological Seminary, and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago). The Illinois Synod of the Lutherans agreed to form the LSTC and locate it in Hyde Park in order to be close to and share resources with the divinity school at the University of Chicago. The university owned several parcels on a block on E. 55th and sold them to the LSTC. However, a group of local residents, weary of the university’s major urban renewal efforts, created an organized opposition. They stopped other owners on the block from selling to the UC/LSTC team and LSTC leaders (a business officer named Frank Zimmerman) decided to give up the block in favor of one to the west, where UC also owned several parcels.

UC and LSTC started over in assembling land on the block (between Greenwood and University on E. 55th) and again found opposition, egged on by owners on the next block. In one instance, LSTC and UC hired the wife of a UC grad student to report on tenant meetings, and in another the university tried to buy up shares in a cooperative in order to outvote holdout owners in cooperative board decisions (unsuccessfully). After 5 years of real estate wrangling, LSTC owned all but one building on the block and directed their architecture firm, Perkins + Will, to design a building around the holdout. The LSTC released the plan in 1962.

Image from the Chicago Maroon

The owners were sufficiently spooked by the prospect of being surrounded by the theology school and its parking lot that they agreed to trade their building for a UC-owned building a few blocks away in Hyde Park. However, the Perkins + Will design remains to this day, rotated 90 degrees from its originally proposed site plan.

Image from Google Earth

In the end, UC got its wish and both blocks were redeveloped. Though they initially declined Chicago’s invitation to move to Hyde Park, the McCormick Theological Seminary subsequently relocated from Lincoln Park to Hyde Park, where its building closes the “C” of the LSTC building.

A Beginner’s Guide to Research at Archives II (part 1)

by Ruby Button

Ruby Button

If you’re reading this, you’re probably quite excited at the prospect of research at what is likely the greatest archival repository in the country, and one of the best in the world, but somewhat bewildered about what the experience will be like. Here is a basic guide.

Archives II, or The Deuce, as I call it, has most of the post-WWII documents and record collections. It is in College Park, on land adjacent to the University of Maryland. It is big and sprawling in many ways and has always been a rewarding but difficult research experience.


The easiest way to get to The Deuce would seem to be to drive if you have your own car, but parking spaces can be in short supply. NARA recommends you use public transportation, but if you’ve got to drive, come into the entrance off of Adelphi Road (not Metzerott). A fairly easy way for those staying in DC is to take a NARA shuttle bus from Archives I, which departs on the hour from the east side of the building and puts you at the visitors entrance to The Deuce. No ID is required to get on the shuttle and it takes 35-45 minutes to get out to The Deuce, depending on traffic. Finally, there’s the Metro. You can take the C8 Metrobus from the College Park Metro train station. Beware, buses only take cash and the Metro SmarTrip card (a plastic electronic pass card recharged by your bank account), not the basic fare card (paper with a magnetic strip) that the train stations use (along with the SmarTrip).

Continue reading

University of Chicago Sit-In, 1962

I thought it worth re-visiting this find from a while back at the request of Angus Johnston.

In my dissertation, “Building the Ivory Tower: Campus Planning, University Development, and the Politics of Urban Space,” I research the development of American universities over the course of the 20th century, using the built environment as a lens for examining urban politics, student life, and academic culture in the process of urbanization. In short, I argue that universities are integral to urbanization, in contrast to previous scholarship that characterizes them as inherently suburban or anti-urban.

In the process of researching one of my cases, the University of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, I came across an interesting student sit-in during January of 1962. Students in a chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) realized that the university had bought up a large number of private apartment buildings in Hyde Park and hired a real estate management company to steer and segregate tenants as part of a larger neighborhood management process to insulate the university from the expanding Black Belt (Arnold Hirsch touches on this in a chapter of Making the Second Ghetto). After some paired applicant testing to establish discrimination, CORE arranged a sit-in (pdf) at the UofC administration building and the real estate management company offices that lasted for two weeks. I was surprised to find out how lines of support and opposition were drawn. It turns out one of the leaders of CORE was Bernie Sanders, an undergrad from New York who had transferred to Chicago for his degree (he mentions this in his political autobiography, Outsider in the House). Students were split on the issue. The faculty was largely opposed to the students’ action, preferring discussion and research on the topic of segregation and housing. And there were some other surprising discoveries I won’t go into here.

One of the items I found in the archive was this image of the sit-in, including Bernie Sanders (standing). Since I am a big supporter of the Senator, and am in DC on a research fellowship, I got two prints of the image and went down to his office on Capitol Hill. I left them with his staff with an explanatory note and a request for a signature on one (the other for him to keep in his papers if he wanted). Today I went and picked this up — his staff reported he was pleased with my gift.

Thanks for the signature, Senator Sanders. I defend my dissertation May 4th at the University of Michigan.

Murder Mystery Flicks

Call Northside 777 and The Naked City. The former film is about a Chicago Times reporter’s investigation of a decade-old murder of a police officer in the Second City; it has a strong affinities with the latter, set as a New York City police investigation of the murder of a young woman. These two films came out within about 6 weeks of each other in the spring of 1948 and it shows. Each have great investigating scenes with the lead poking into seamier and derelict areas of the city. While Northside has a cornier, feel-good ending, it has some better cinematography and includes footage of the now-dated mid-1940s newspaper-making technology and process. Both are strongly recommended.

On the Beeb

Desperate for a photo of the north end of the Monadnock Building, somebody from the BBC contacted me about using this photo on my flickr stream. I said “ok” and you can see a multimedia slideshow here. It takes an interesting spin, centering the interpretation development of the commercial skyscraper on the Monadnock and the Woolworth Building by Cass Gilbert in New York. Sort of an odd product but it is what it is.

There really aren’t that many good shots of the Monadnock on flickr — lots of images of the bays but few perspective shots with the whole building. Because of its context and position it is a difficult building to shoot on the exterior and on the interior the building management doesn’t allow any photographs (I’ve been hassled both times I’ve tried).