By John Rice
Ferdinand Haase was the "Daniel Burnham" of Forest Park. He was a visionary who made no small plans. He wrote a letter in 1863 describing his dream for Haase's Park and for establishing a German settlement here. It's a remarkable document advocating for a park, back when access to green space could be a matter of life or death. He described Chicago as a disease-ridden city with open sewers, plagued by poor air and water quality. He could picture city dwellers flocking to his park, "a piece of country with fresh air" and a wooded area with a bathing beach on the Des Plaines River.
Conditions obviously have improved in Chicago, while the Des Plaines is currently not a desirable place to swim. But there is still a need for city dwellers to have a convenient nature preserve to visit. Ralph Di Febo sees many parallels between his plans for a Cultural Park at Altenheim and Haase's proposal to create "the finest park in the vicinity of Chicago." Like Haase, Ralph thinks big!
Both men point to Forest Park's proximity to railroads but, unlike the single spur that served Haase's property, we now have three rail lines serving the village — not to mention an expressway that cuts through Haase's former park.
They both dreamed of a community-sponsored park that could be rented out for picnics and performing arts. Haase imagined a site for German festivals, while Ralph proposes a music venue, along the lines of the Ravinia Festival, each a potential money-maker for the village. "Without doubt, the park would bring big interest in money value," Haase wrote. Ralph also foresees concerts and rentals providing a revenue stream for the park.
However, making money is secondary to providing a "grandiose woods park" for the public. Haase imagined even "rich Americans looking longingly at Haase's Park, as a country estate for themselves." In Ralph's case, he is hoping to obtain donations, or corporate sponsorship to provide seed money for the project. He also has the support of local political leaders, who spoke of providing government funding for the project.
"We are trying to create a place similar to Haase's dream," Ralph said, "a green space that all could come and enjoy. The Cultural Park seeks to keep this property in the public domain forever." Haase didn't have the luxury of preserving all of his property as a park. Burdened by debt, he sold off large parcels that became Concordia Cemetery and Jewish Waldheim Cemetery. He replaced Haase Park with Forest Home Cemetery.
In this way, Haase insured that Forest Park would have abundant green space to this day. Cemeteries, though, are not intended for recreation. Ralph sees Cultural Park as a place where people can stroll walking paths, toss Frisbees, or listen to music. Unlike The Park on Harrison Street, which is primarily dedicated to sports, this would be a place for relaxation and contemplation.
He sees it providing access to the river and serving as the trail head for the Prairie Path. In fact, the National Park Service has expressed an interest in preserving and utilizing the Des Plaines watershed, in conjunction with the Cultural Park plans. He sees the Altenheim property as our last patch of undeveloped land and prefers a public park, to selling the land to private developers.
Like Haase, Ralph has done his homework for the project. He has given public presentations and provided detailed plans to the committee that is studying it. He has the support of the park district to make his project a reality. We are fortunate that 150 years after Haase laid out his vision for Forest Park, we have a new "Daniel Burnham" in town, who's not afraid to dream big.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.