Centennial Park: Settlers, Sanitarium and Open Space

By Susan Whitcomb

The earliest people to walk the land we now know as Centennial Park were Native Americans who moved north and south on the Green Bay trail. In the early 19th century, trappers, mail carriers and settlers began to trod the same ground. The first permanent dweller on the land that comprises Centennial Park was Simon Doyle, who erected a cabin on its southern edge in the 1830s.

Winnetka was incorporated in 1869, but its population grew quite slowly until the end of the century. Little is known about the subsequent inhabitants of the five-acre tract until 1900 when a dignified brick mansion was built and a private healthcare facility called the North Shore Health Resort (NSHR) opened. The therapeutic evolution of NSHR echoes the progression of medical specialization in the 20th century.

The North Shore Health Resort was one of only a few buildings along the shore of Lake Michigan when this postcard photo was taken c. 1910.

An early postcard for the NSHR advertised it as a place where “the sick are here treated scientifically – sensibly – and are taught how to live.” By the 1920s, NSHR billed itself as a “well-appointed sanitarium” and its mission had expanded to include “the care of convalescents, the treatment of nervous diseases, insomnia, affections of the heart, and disorders of the stomach and kidneys.” At midcentury the facility, then known as “North Shore Hospital,” treated psychiatric disorders exclusively. Chicago writer Nelson Algren (National Book Award, 1950) was a resident there in 1956, diagnosed with “anxiety state and passive aggressive personality.” Algren stayed less than two weeks, making his exit through a window and down a fire escape.

The hospital closed in 1968 because – according to its chairman– the value of the real estate far exceeded the profitability of the hospital. The building and land were purchased by CA Hemphill & Associates, a builder of many homes and condominiums in Winnetka between 1930 and 1980. Hemphill planned to demolish the hospital, divide the land into 10 half-acre home sites and build custom homes.

Half of the new home sites were already under contract when the Plan Commission first reviewed the proposed development in late 1968. About the same time, there began some rumbling among Winnetka residents about more homes cluttering the lakeshore. Led by Vernon Walsh, a committee of 40 Winnetkans called the “Winnetka Conservation Association” collected 1300 signatures in support of a park on the hospital parcel. Soon afterward, the Park District, led by Board President Donald Erickson, filed a condemnation suit to stop Hemphill from moving forward and allow time to organize a referendum to fund the purchase of the land from Hemphill. Erickson said at the time that they had to get the issue in front of the voters because “we’ll never get a chance at this land again.”

The North Shore Hospital, a familiar Winnetka landmark for clsoe to 70 years was demolished in 1969, making way for Centennial Park. Winnetka Talk February 24, 1969.

The referendum passed by 119 votes, giving the Park District $550,000 to buy out Hemphill and create a park. Initially, Hemphill made comments to the press that he would have no more discussions with the Park District “short of a jury trial.” However, the two parties were able to work out an agreement in the end.

Almost 50 years later, we must marvel at the speed at which these events unfolded. North Shore Hospital announced the sale to Hemphill on October 6, 1968. By October 30, the Winnetka Conservation Association had organized and collected signatures. Hemphill took title to the property on November 1. On November 7, the Park District filed the condemnation suit and the Village held a referendum vote on December 7. Negotiations with Hemphill concluded by the end of December. It was less than three months from an idea to a new park despite many obstacles.

The new park was dedicated in 1969, the 100-year anniversary of Winnetka’s incorporation as a village – hence the name: Centennial Park. The dog beach below the park was introduced in 1995.

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