Gazette Article by: Joan Evanich and Elizabeth Carlson
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 2004
400 Seasons of Beautiful Parks: Park District Celebrates Centennial
Concerned with public image, the citizens of 1904 were dissatisfied with the first impression of our Village. Passengers disembarking from the train at the Elm Street station were greeted with the sight of debris and discarded buggies from the local livery stable. Then, just as today, a group of concerned citizens organized to solve the problem. A syndicate was formed that collected $8,548.30 and purchased the land now known as Station Park. What began as a Village beautification project has yielded 400 seasons of beautiful parks carefully overseen by the Winnetka Park District, an institution that cares for 28 park sites on more than 244 acres of land.
Once the winter snows have melted and the first leaves of spring appear, Winnetkans are ready to play. The Park District has maintained baseball, golf and tennis facilities on public land since its earliest days. Plans for the Skokie Playfield were created in 1913 with the Village’s first two official baseball diamonds constructed there in 1915. Golf in Winnetka has very early origins. In 1918, a nine-hole course designed by William Langford was opened. It was later redesigned by Chick Evans in 1930. William Langford returned to the Winnetka Park District in 1959 to lay out the Par 3 course, which opened in 1961. Many generations of golfers have honed their skills on the local links. A few Winnetka golfers have even made the national news. In 1957, Michael Connley made two holes-in-one in the same match but still lost the game. For this feat he was invited to appear on television in New York on “I’ve Got a Secret.” Although outdoor tennis courts were first constructed on the Village Green in 1915, it was in 1961 when Winnetka tennis really bounced in. In Winnetka, the word “tennis” is synonymous with the name “Nielsen.” The Nielsen family donated the original tennis building and has continued to support its renovations and expansions ever since. It is also largely through their efforts that the Women’s Indoor Tennis, Windy City Classic and other major tennis tournaments have been held here since 1965.
The beach has always meant summer fun in Winnetka, especially in the days before air conditioning. One hundred years ago, most of our beachfront property was privately owned; in fact, even Tower Road Beach was not officially purchased until 1946. Although privately owned, eastern Tower Road (then North Avenue) was the only entrance to the beach and the owner graciously permitted public use. To ensure future public beach access, the Park Commissioners began acquiring lakefront property. For $120 per front foot they were able to purchase what is now Maple Street Beach in 1910. By 1913, a beach house was built and public swimming was officially opened, with shuttles carrying overheated bathers to the cool waters of Lake Michigan. With great foresight the commissioners continued to buy available land. Elder Lane Beach was added in 1958, Lloyd Park in 1961, and Centennial Park in 1968. Evidently, even dogs like to run in the sand and surf, so in 1995 a dog beach was opened. Today nearly 800 passes are bought every year for both people and dogs.
As autumn approaches and the leaves turn various shades of red and gold, a walk through Winnetka’s parks are a joy to many. In addition to all the sports, recreation and events for which the Park District is responsible, it is also the caretaker of the community’s natural resources. Forward-thinking Village trustees began early to set aside open lands, placing them under the protection of the Park District. The Park Board has worked vigorously to raise money and buy lands that were threatened with over-development. More than 200 acres of open parklands are currently maintained and preserved for future generations.
Winter would be long and dreary without the many Park District programs. One of the very first organized Park District activities was the construction of an outdoor ice rink in 1907. Additions and improvements have continued ever since. The Winter Carnival, begun in 1929, drew 3,000 spectators its first year and continued to be popular for decades. The indoor Winnetka Ice Arena was built in 1972. One of the proudest days in Winnetka sports history came in 1998 when local athlete Sarah Tueting won an Olympic Gold Medal as the goaltender for the U.S. Women’s Hockey team. Tueting has inspired a whole new generation of skaters who now figure skate, race and play hockey on Winnetka ice. Winnetka’s love affair with ice is not limited to skating, however. The Coasting Hill and Toboggan Run, both constructed in 1950, draw winter revelers from Winnetka and surrounding communities.
The Park District has held special events in all seasons including Easter Egg hunts, Holiday Sing Alongs, Memorial Day events and the once popular Ex-lawnmower Races. Many of these events have become family traditions for Winnetkans and enhance the quality of life and community spirit in the village.
Happy birthday, Winnetka Park District, and thank you for 100 years of beautiful parks.