April 30, 2015

(Sub)Urban Cultural Heritage Protection: Park Forest House Museum in Illinois -- why you should support your local museums

By Hal Johnson, 2014 ARCA alumnus and DNA Consultant

When it comes to protecting and preserving cultural heritage, our focus tends to be on buildings and objects that were created centuries, if not millennia, ago. And with good reason; much of humanity’s finest creations are located in areas still ravaged by war and devastation. The destruction of Near Eastern heritage in Syria and Iraq is ongoing. Attention will soon turn toward Nepal and the damage sustained in the recent earthquake. However, there are also examples of cultural heritage protection to be found much closer to home. Small local landmarks may seem more mundane when compared to colossal Assyrian statues, but they are no less important – especially for the local citizens who care about them. I recently visited the Park Forest House Museum in Park Forest, Illinois. This small museum south of Chicago works hard to preserve the history of a phenomenon that still affects many of us – modern suburbia.

Park Forest, Illinois was the first post-World War II planned community in the United States. Experts anticipated a housing shortage on the home front even before the war’s end, particularly due to the lack of construction during the Great Depression. Private enterprise stepped in to create housing for many thousands of returning American veterans. Planned and financed by American Community Builders, Inc., Park Forest was the largest housing project in American history up to that time. Its effects were felt nationwide; the jobs it helped create and industries it supported were an economic boost to the country. The first planned suburb in the US, Collier’s magazine prominently featured this experiment in American suburbia, calling it a “City to order.” Veterans could move here with their new families and commute to jobs in downtown Chicago, or to nearby employers like Standard Oil, Argonne National Laboratory and the US Fifth Army base. Over three thousand two-bedroom rental townhomes (leased for $75-$99 / month) and an adjacent shopping center were constructed between 1947 and 1949. Move-ins began in 1948. According to local archivist Jane Nicoll, fifty families moved in per week during this time and it was not uncommon to see several moving vans per day on one block! Temporary classrooms were established in empty units until permanent school buildings were finished. In fact, Park Forest grew so fast that it was incorporated as a municipality only two years after breaking ground.  

The Park Forest House Museum is meant to evoke the atmosphere of an American suburban home in the early 1950’s, when tract communities like this were in their heyday. The museum itself occupies an original town home and is entirely furnished with authentic items from that era: furniture, dishes, toys, clothes and household goods. Visitors get a hands-on experience; they are free to open drawers and examine the contents during the docent-guided tour through the house. My favorite artifact was the original 1950’s dosimeter – a home radiation testing kit (no Cold War family should be without one). Rooms are also curated with archival photographs of the community’s early development and scenes of residential life. One photo album on display had been donated by a family that used to live in that very unit! I could turn around and see the same electrical outlet that the Christmas tree in the photo had been plugged into. Few other items connected me to the exhibit space so closely.
Originally intended as a temporary exhibit, the museum was conceived in 1998 as part of the town’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations. Ms. Nicoll (who also serves as the museum’s director) and the local historical society have managed to obtain enough donations in funds and artifacts to keep the museum going since then. They have achieved some measure of success and recognition, even collaborating with the Smithsonian’s “American on the Move” exhibit. Yet like the first occupants of the house, the museum’s space is rented and subject to the whims of a landlord. They already had to move once in 2007 and will move again soon so the space can once more be leased as a residence. My parents and I were the last visitors to walk through before everything was packed into boxes. Sadly, the Park Forest Historical Society has not been able to procure an original home for their next location. Instead they will move into two classrooms at a nearby Catholic school.  

The planned postwar housing tracts were so successful that in just a few generations, suburban life has become woven into the fabric of modern American identity. You may have parents or grandparents who still live in homes like this and who have nostalgic memories of their own from that era. You may have lived in one yourself. American suburbia is still going strong, but its post-war origins are slipping away from us and into the pages of history as our "greatest generation" continues to diminish. What many of us have always thought of as nostalgia is quickly becoming cultural heritage in need of preservation. 

What better way to preserve mid-twentieth century living than an in situ exhibit? This is a great strength of small museums like the Park Forest House. An exhibit showcasing this kind of legacy in a large museum – even with more funding at hand – would have a much tougher time connecting with its audience. Not only would it be shown out of its original context, but it would also have to compete with a big museum’s headliners and blockbuster exhibits. The take home point, dear ARCA Blog readers, is to seek out your local museums! There are many hidden gems out there that need your help. Local support can often have a more immediate impact.