History of Jefferson
Jefferson Park is presently a Chicago Community Area. According to the city maps of the 72 Chicago Community Areas, the community goes south to Lawrence, however most area residents would assert that it goes south to Montrose. Jefferson Park is bordered by the communities of Portage Park on the south, Norwood Park on the West, and Forest Glen on the North and East, though its original boundaries stretched much further as far south as North Avenue and as far west as Harlem.
The recorded history of the area begins around 1830 when trapper and trader John Kinzie Clark settled in the area. He is most often referred to as the first non-native settler of the area, arriving and making his homestead near the current Jefferson Station. He was soon joined by Elijah Wentworth who built a log hotel and tavern on the site.
The first house in Jefferson was built by Abram Gale, honored by the area’s Gale Street. The state formed the village of Jefferson in 1850 and five years later, it had over 50 buildings. By the 1860s, Jefferson had a population of 800. In 1872, the town of Jefferson incorporated. By the 1880s, Jefferson was home to several taverns, trades and businesses of every type. In 1889, Jefferson along with Lake View, Lake and Hyde Park townships were all annexed by Chicago making the city the largest in the nation by area, and second largest to New York in population.
7 acre park recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. It was renamed Thomas Jefferson Park in 1999, though the whole area was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson. The park is built on the site of the former Elsdohr farm. Residents of the area were appreciative of the Elsdohrs who were known to let residents of the area use their water pump. The brown building at 4820 N Long you see here is the Henry Esdohr House, which was moved in or around 1921 from 5424 Higgins to its existing space righter here to serve as the newly constructed park’s field house.
For a time, it served as the Jefferson Park branch of the Chicago Public Library, and recently it was the craft shop for the park.
The park was established by the Jefferson Park District in 1920. Land acquisition began the following year, and by 1929, the park was nearly fully landscaped. In 1930, they commissioned the field house from one of my favorite architects, Clarence Hatzfeld, whose work exists throughout the park system, including the buildings at Portage Park nearby. The existence of Hatzfeld’s field house and the Elsdohr family home are key to the placement of the park on the National Register.
Brothers Henry and Herman Esdohr emigrated from Prussia in 1866 when they were 14 and 12 years respectively. Coming to America with nothing, they became some of the most prominent citizens in Jefferson. Henry became the Knight Templar of the Masons, was the 1st postmaster treasurer of the area, and city clerk for Jefferson.
Early Surveying Errors and the Indian Boundary
The jogs of Central Avenue at Goodman is a surveying error that occurred when the original surveying of the area was done , or possibly when the follow up survey was done when homesteaders were allowed to ignore what was known as the Indian boundary line intersected the present day of Jefferson Park. The boundary line was negotiated in the Treaty of St. Louis following the Fort Dearborn Massacre of 1812. It provided for a boundary that the Native Americans had to live beyond part of which runs directly through Jefferson Park. You can see another example of this at Austin where it meets Lawrence and there is a second set of stop lights by Gunnison. The eventual outcome of the Indian Boundary was fated after the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the resulting Chicago Treaty, after which homesteaders moved beyond the boundary lines and the re-surveying could well have caused the roads not to line up correctly.
Chartered in 1898, this Masonic lodge was named for the King of Norway and Sweden, Oscar II.
4958 N Milwaukee Avenue
This storefront with apartments above is from about 1924. The terracotta work is particularly stunning.
Jefferson Park Station Neighborhood Transit Center
Jefferson Park is the lucky recipient of the foolish decision of Portage Park citizens to oppose a major train station in their city during the 1850s. Worried that trains would bring a rush of city folk to their little burg, Portage Park citizens opposed its development and the resulting station for the Chicago Northwestern Railroad was placed at Milwaukee and Higgins. In 1970, the present “L” station opened. The facility was designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merril under direction of Myron Goldsmith. Until 1983, this was the Blue line terminus, before they added a stop at O’Hare. It is also a major bus depot and a Metra station.
The commuter transportation history of the area is the paramount reason that the area continued to thrive into the 20th century. In addition to the local railroads and commuter rail lines, street cars along Lawrence Avenue were added to the area’s transportation options in 1909. In 1911, tracks from the Elston line were extended to meet Lawrence.
Named for famed Prussian astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, the Copernicus Foundation is built on the site of the former Gateway Theatre, a former movie palace that opened in 1930. It was part of a chain of movie palaces in Chicago built by Balaban and Katz, designed as was often the case for their theatres, by their favorite architects, Rapp and Rapp. Other collaborations between Balaban and Katz and Rapp and Rapp were the Oriental, the Chicago, the Uptown and the Riveria. Happily, the interior is largely restored and intact and they still show films, including Polish and Silent Film Festivals in the theatre.
The Copernicus Foundation has been rebuilt to accommodate the new uses of the center, which is as Polish Cultural Center. The area plays host to the annual festivals, Jeff Fest and Taste of Polonia. The tower is a replica of the 800 year old Solidarity Clock Tower of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland.
Frank J. Wilson Park
This park is deemed to be in the Portage Park community area, even if Jefferson Park residents think of it as being part of their neighborhood. In truth, it was formed by the Old Portage Park District in 1925 after 41st Ward Alderman Frank J. Wilson helped the Park District secure the land from competing railroad interest, insuring the park would be his namesake. The Georgian Revival field house is built from the same plans and is virtually identical to the field houses at Chopin and Shabbona Parks.
Our Lady of Victory
Our Lady of Victory parish was organized in September of 1906. The structures directly before us were all completed by E. Brielmaier and Sons of Milwaukee, WI. The rectory, church and convent were all started in 1927 and all were completed and dedicated by 1929.
The church is a modified Spanish and Moorish design. The limestone was quarried in Minessota and selected because it matched well with the terracotta surfaces. The spire of the tower is almost 120 feet to its top.
Craftsman Bungalow – 1903 (city tax records) or 1914 (Chicago Landmarks survey) by Ernest Braucher
Named for a prominent Chicago lawyer and author, Ernst Prussing Public School was constructed in 1927. Prussing’s father was also a prominent Chicago figure who was an abolitionist and a member of the Free Soil Party, a predecessor political party to the Republican Party.
Built in 1908, Herman had sold his home on Milwaukee and planned to make this home his retirement home. Retirement did not last long for Herman, who intended to make a business for his children to work at, and started a dry-goods store called ” H.H. Esdohr Co.” within a few years of retiring.
1930 Art Deco building by Haperin and Braun.
Opened in 1919 prior to falling victim to the Great Depression, this building was the Jefferson Bank Building. Eventually, the space was occupied by Walgreens, and then was returned to its original purpose once it was purchased by Hoyne Savings.
Big Shoulders Realty is housed in an apartment at 4748 N Milwaukee #1, above the Law Office of Barbara Demos. The Demos family owns these two buildings, that have been joined together. The 4746-4748 N Milwaukee building was built for Humboldt Realty along with apartment income in the 1950s. At the same time, Mr. Demos had travelled to Florida where he became enamored of much of the modernist architecture that flourished in the state, and this building was merged with the adjacent 4750-4752 N Milwaukee, which used to be a movie theater. The floor sloped down past the basement to a pit at the bottom. The brick piers used as horizontal support represents where the screen and stage were, and the bathrooms, were the behind the curtains operations. At one point, it was our plan to work with the Demos to build out the old movie theater section and eventually locate our offices within that space, but for a variety of reasons, the build-out is on permanent hold, and we are quite comfortable in our bright sunny office.
The interior space of the theater was heavily modified, the theater seating filled in, and two layers of dropped ceilings were installed. A variety of shortsighted modifications ruined much of the plaster molding and the lattice filled medallions which were once used to pull the hot air from the theater with large exhaust fans and blow it out the back of the building in lieu of air conditioning.
It is still everyone’s hope that there will be a day where the remaining elements can be salvaged and merged with a restored space, but the economics of the moment prevail over the wishes we might have.
This church was originally established in 1861 as the Congregational Church of Jefferson Park. The original church was a frame church on Milwaukee north of Giddings. A new church replaced it on the present site in 1896 before being replaced by this Colonial brick church in 1929. This is a classical revival style.
A more traditional cape-cod, though still brick, and featuring masonry that is more representative of other Chicago properties. City records show the home was built in 1940.
St. Constance Parish was established in 1916.
In 1930, this multi-unit building that seems like a cross between a traditional two flat, a bungalow and a Dutch Colonial house.
This Gothic and craftsman inspired bungalow was built in 1923.
Established in 1965 by the Board of Education, the park was turned over to the Chicago Park District in 1991 and two years later lost it’s old name, “Park Number 285” in favor of the present name, which local residents had long referred to it as anyway.
This war era Tudor was built in 1940.
Rufus M Hitch Elementary – 5625 N McVicker Ave, circa 1926
This parish was formed in 1926 so that citizens of the Gladstone Park neighborhood wouldn’t have to travel all the way to Our Lady of Victory.
Scenes along Milwaukee Avenue
The Old Plank Roads
The area was known as the Gateway to Chicago or the Gateway Garden because of the terminus of two major arteries, present day Higgins and Northwest Highway, into present day Milwaukee Avenue. Milwaukee Avenue was a very early plank road referred to as the Old Northwest Plank Road, the Northwest Plank Road, or the Upper Road. Elston, the area’s other plank road was referred to as the Lower Road. It was named for Dan Elston, a local bricklayer and alderman. Both roads had fallen into disuse because of the nature of plank roads. While plank roads start as very smooth and improved roads over dirt paths for transporting by horse, wagon, and all matters of wheeled mechanisms, they soon become almost un-crossable due to the weight of the load, the constant beating of the sun, the flooding of the land and the endless exposure to the elements during all seasons.
Falling into complete disrepair, the routes were taken over by the county in 1865. Beyond the city limits, they were toll roads. Increasingly, farmers used those portions to bring their products to the city. Eventually, the city and nearby suburb routes were re-discovered after years of disuse by a local business man, Amos Snell. Formerly an inn operator from Schaumburg, Snell relocated to the town of Jefferson to be closer to the city. In doing so, he began a new career, first supplying fire wood to the local railroads, when he eventually noticed an unused portion of the Northwest Plank road ran immediately parallel to the railroads. Seeing the advantage of such a route, he bought them for $20,000 from the County. He tore out the planks and made a gravel surface, which he paid for by placing tolls along its way. An increasing number of tolls were fit into the toll road as the area grew and the routes grew thick with travelers, but they had little options other than paying for Snell’s tolls if they wanted to get to the city or bring their products to Jefferson. For a time, Milwaukee was referred to as “Snell Toll Road.”
On February 9, 1888, Snell was shot to death in his own home at the top of his stairs. Two bullets fell Snell (ahem), but they were fired from different guns. No one has ever been caught for the crime.
By this time, Snell was a multimillionaire and the largest individual landlord in Chicago with title to over 350 buildings. He had made many enemies along the way, so the options for his potential assassin or assassins were plentiful, and many leads were followed, but his case remains unsolved.
His family didn’t make out very well either. Shortly after Snell’s death, his family tried to assume control of the toll roads, but the courts refused to recognize their rights. Further, an increasingly dissatisfied clientele rioted at the tolls at April 30, 1890. They killed the toll operator and burned down the gate and toll booth. When Snell’s family complained, they were told the tolls (ahem) were operating illegally in the first place. On May 14 of that year, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that they had been operating the tolls illegally and without authority, and since then, they have both been free roads.
A traditional Cape Cod built with Chicago Bungalow stylings from 1930.
Neighborhood and Park at 5421 N. Menard Ave
This neighborhood is centered at the huge intersection of Milwaukee, Foster, Central and Northwest Highway. It was formerly the Gladstone Park subdivision, named by its residents for the former British Prime Minister This park was formed in 1923 when nearby residents of the Gladstone Park subdivision sought help from the Jefferson Park District, which purchased the land the following year and transformed the land into the park. Clarence Hatzfeld is again the designer of the field house.
This Mission-style gas station currently occupied by Elston tower Auto Body and Chicago Red Hots was designed by Joseph T. Fortin around 1927-1928. For those of you who are not aware, I collect pictures of old gas stations amongst other strange things. Also buildings with the first names of people inscribed in them. And ghost addresses.
This house and 5320 N Ludlam are a pair of 1926 Bungalow identical, or twin-houses designed by George W Repp.
Beaubien Public School
Named for Jean Baptiste Beaubien, this school was built in 1905. The architect Arthur F. Hussander designed the school in a Gothic style. Jean Baptiste Beaubien was an early settler to the area.
Roberts Square Playlot Park c/o Jefferson Park – 5200 W Argyle
This 3.5 acre park was created in 1873 and named for Daniel Roberts, a leather salesman who donated the park to the town of Jefferson, and it remained an entirely green space even after the city’s annexation of the area. This small park was the original end to the tour, however, current versions humps quickly back to the start at Jefferson Park.