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Chicago Park District Records: Photographs

Identifier: spe-p00001

Scope and Contents

The Chicago Park District Records: Photographs include images created and acquired by the Chicago Park District and predecessor park commissions including Lincoln, South and West Chicago. While staff photographers produced the bulk of the images following the 1934 park commission consolidation, a significant number come from other sources. These sources include construction companies – such as those contracted to build features and facilities like fieldhouses and swimming pools – freelance photographers who photographed special events, aerial photographing companies and amateurs.

The oldest photographs include numerous images created by Chicago-based commercial photographers from the turn of the 19th-century, including George Lawrence and J.W. Taylor. These works, in addition to photographs drawn from un-credited scrapbooks, document the landscape, development, and activity of Chicago’s earliest parks. The Chicago Park District’s staff began producing photographs in 1934. Images printed from 1934 through the late 1960s, frequently bear the stamp of the Photography Unit. These photographs may also be marked with negative numbers, which correspond to the Chicago Park District’s unprocessed negative collection. Photographs made and/or printed from the 1970s forward do not usually include source notes unless they are the result of construction projects or commissions. Notable among the latter are works created by photographers James Iska and Judith Bromley, both of whom documented parks in service of Julia Bachrach’s book, The City in a Garden: A Photographic History of Chicago's Parks.

Topically, photographs in the Chicago Park District Records document site development, park facilities, features (such as gardens, fountains, playgrounds and sculptures), park staff, programmatic activities, special events, the lakeshore and shore protection efforts and road construction and re-development. Given its proximity to parklands, Lake Shore Drive is particularly well documented, as are boulevards and major thoroughfares intersecting large parks. Photographs of people engaged in activities and events also appear in great numbers. These images not only document individual parks, but also record city-wide events, such as Special Olympics and cross-park tournaments.

Periods of notable development in the history of the Chicago Park District are also well represented. From 1934 through the late 1940s, the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) provided support for park development and management. W.P.A. photographers routinely documented construction projects, landscapes and the park features that drew neighborhood populations to Chicago’s parks. The majority of images falling into this category bear notations linking them to the W.P.A. Similarly, the Chicago Park District’s Ten Year Plan resulted in the production of large numbers of photographs documenting undeveloped or potential park properties from the city of Chicago. In 1985 and 1986, an effort to survey the condition of playgrounds across the district produced thousands of photographs of playground equipment. While the bulk of photographs bear minimal original description, many event photographs from the 1950s-1980s are affixed with press releases that provide important subject identification. Similarly, folders occasionally include ephemera, such as programs or hand-written notes that will provide researchers with contextual information.

As expected, the collection is rich in evidentiary value for studying the growth and evolution of the Chicago Park District’s properties and services. These photographs also enrich the telling of Chicago’s story, particularly with regard to how the demographics and populations served by the city’s parks have changed over time. Viewed with an even wider lens, the photographs document the history of and changes in American leisure activities and the use of public spaces. Activities of a time gone-by, such as toy lending, marbles competitions, open-air music appreciation classes and square dancing festivals, provide a window into the interests and habits of urban-dwellers of an earlier era. At the same time, continuity is shown in those activities, such as swimming lessons, arts and crafts, community concerts and sand-sculpting contests, that Chicago park goers have enjoyed for more than a century.


  • 1863 - 2005
  • Majority of material found within 1934 - 1995


Conditions Governing Access

Materials are open without restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Please consult staff to determine ability to reuse materials from collection.

Biographical / Historical

This note was written by historian Julia Bachrach.

In the 1830s, Chicago's emerging government adopted the motto "Urbs in horto," a Latin phrase meaning "City in a Garden." The slogan proved to be prophetic. For nearly two centuries, Chicago's citizens have rallied for the creation and protection of parkland, and many of the city's parks have served as testing grounds for important ideas and social movements. Many of the parks were originally created or shaped by nationally acclaimed architects, planners, landscape designers or artists, such as Daniel H. Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., Jens Jensen, Alfred Caldwell and Lorado Taft.

The earliest parks were created in Chicago between the 1830s and 1860s. Grant Park began as a strip of green space along Lake Michigan known as Lake Park. On the city’s north side, a physician, Dr. John Rauch, led a successful campaign to set aside a 60-acre section of a public cemetery as parkland, marking the beginnings of Lincoln Park. As Chicagoans increasingly recognized the need for parks throughout the city, a movement emerged which led to the formation of one of the nation’s first comprehensive park and boulevard systems. This system was spurred by the adoption of three separate acts of state legislation establishing the Lincoln, South, and West Chicago Park Commissions in 1869. Although the three park commissions operated independently, the overall goal was to create a unified ribbon of green that would encircle Chicago.

The three agencies each commissioned their own designers to create pleasure grounds and interlinking boulevards that could be enjoyed by the whole city. The Lincoln Park Commissioners hired Swain Nelson and Olof Benson to expand their existing park and to construct the old Lake Shore Drive. The West Chicago Park Commissioners hired William Le Baron Jenney to lay out Humboldt, Garfield and Douglas Parks. The South Park Commission selected the nationally renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. to design its park system, now known as Washington Park, Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance. Olmsted also helped transform Jackson Park into the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and return the site to parkland after the fair closed.

At the turn of the century, each of the three commissions made efforts to expand its park system to respond to the city’s rapidly growing population. The South Park Commissioners worked with D.H. Burnham & Co. architects and Olmsted Brothers landscape architects to pioneer new neighborhood parks that offered recreational opportunities as well as social and educational programs. These parks, which included the nation’s first fieldhouses, were described by President Theodore Roosevelt as “the most notable civic achievement in any American city.” During this period, Prairie style visionary Jens Jensen served as the General Superintendent and Chief Landscape Architect for the entire West Park System. Jensen designed numerous improvements to the existing parks and created plans for small west side parks such as Eckhart and Dvorak Parks. Similarly, the Lincoln Park Commissioners hired Prairie School architect Dwight H. Perkins and landscape gardener Ossian Cole Simonds to create beautifully-designed improvements to Lincoln Park and new small parks such as Hamlin and Seward parks. At this time, the city was expanding by territory as well as population. The most remarkable increases occurred in 1889, when areas outside of Chicago were annexed to the city. An 1895 state act allowed voters within newly annexed areas to create their own park districts. By 1930, 19 new park districts had been formed resulting in a total of 22 independent agencies operating simultaneously in the city. The smaller park districts often wanted to build fieldhouses, and many of them hired local architect Clarence Hatzfeld to design their buildings.

By 1934, all of Chicago’s 22 park districts were hindered by the Great Depression. To reduce duplication of services, streamline operations and gain access to funding through President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, voters approved the Park Consolidation Act of 1934, which established the Chicago Park District (CPD). In order to create jobs, the newly established CPD hired architects, engineers and landscape architects to produce record plans and drawings that provide a detailed understanding of the park buildings and landscapes as they appeared in the 1930s.

Since its formation, the Chicago Park District has continued its tradition of innovative programs and ideas and beautifully designed landscapes and facilities. In the late 1940s, a Ten Year Plan led to dozens of new parks, including a progressive school-park concept. In 1959, the system expanded again when the City of Chicago transferred more than 250 parks, playlots, natatoriums and beaches to the Chicago Park District. As of 2014, the Chicago Park District was the steward of over 8,000 acres of open space, totaling more than 570 parks, 31 beaches, 50 nature areas and 2 world-class conservatories. CPD hosts thousands of special events and cultural, nature, sports and recreational programs. It remains the nation’s leading provider of green space and recreation.


110 Linear Feet (in 182 boxes, including approximately 62,000 photographs)

Language of Materials



Chicago's earliest parks were created between the 1830s and 1860s. In 1869, three major organizations were formed for the creation, maintenance and governance of Chicago's parks: the Lincoln Park Commission, the West Chicago Park Commission and the South Park Commission. By 1934, 22 independent park commissions existed, and in that year, they consolidated into the Chicago Park District. Representing over 500 parks from the late nineteenth century to the present, these photographs document site development, park facilities, features (such as gardens, fountains, playgrounds and sculptures), park staff, programmatic activities, special events, the lakeshore and shore protection efforts and road construction and re-development. Photographs of people engaged in activities and events also appear in great numbers. The photographs show how the demographics and populations served by the city’s parks have changed over time. They also document the history of and changes in American leisure activities and the use of public spaces.


Images in the Chicago Park District Records: Photographs are arranged into two Series:

  • Series 1: Park identified
  • Series 2: Subject, Park unidentified or multiple parks included

Physical Location

Materials are stored offsite and advance notice is required for use. Please request materials at least 24-hours prior to your research visit to coordinate access.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Transferred to the library by the Chicago Park District in 2017

Existence and Location of Copies

JPG versions are the primary mode of access. For physical originals, researchers must consult an archivist.

Related Materials

  • Chicago Park District Records: Drawings
  • Hatzfeld, Clarence Papers
  • Kanief, Zarah G. Zechman Papers
  • Millennium Park, Inc. Archives
  • Millennium Park, U.S. Equities Realty Collection
  • O'Shea, John Scrapbook
  • Open Space Section Records
  • Phillips, David: Chicago Park District Photographs

Guide to the Chicago Park District Records: Photographs
Armstrong-Johnston, LLC, 2016 and Johanna Russ and Morag Walsh, 2016-2018. Updated and ingested into ArchivesSpace by Johanna Russ, 2022.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Unit at Harold Washington Library Center Repository

Harold Washington Library Center, 9th Floor
Chicago Public Library
400 S. State Street
Chicago IL 60605 United States
(312) 747-4875