Tucked into a wooded corner of Forest Park is The Altenheim, also known as the German Old People’s Home. The original building was opened in 1885 to meet the needs of that time. Today, 120 years later, Altenheim is trying to do the same, renovating for current and future residents.
Altenheim was the result of the efforts of 8-10 German ladies (accounts differ) with a great deal of energy and a desire to address humanitarian issues. This group, the Frauverein (Women’s Society), ran soup kitchens during the hard times of 1878, and when soup wasn’t needed, turned their attention to bricks and mortar. Concerned about the situation of both the elderly infirm and the aged without means or family, they established a home for Cook County Germans. (The Germans were not the only ethnic group looking after their elderly. Scottish Home, a bit further south on Desplaines Avenue, was also founded in the late 19th century. British Home is located just northwest of the Brookfield Zoo.)
Land was purchased or given (again, accounts differ) but everyone agrees that Conrad Seipp and Anton Hessing were important. Twenty acres of wooded land in Forest Park (then known as Harlem) became the site for Altenheim.
The original Victorian building opened in 1885 with 75 residents. On the building, molded brickwork celebrates the date MDCCCLXXXV and the sentiment “Deutches Haus Im Neuen Land””German House in America. By 1895, it housed 89 residents, men and women. Even then, expenses were double the income from capital investment, but the Frauverein balanced the books.
As a side note, since Altenheim didn’t change the façade, this Victorian brick pile, complete with room for long shots, was used in three Hollywood films: “Harry and Tonto,” “The Package” and “The Babe.”
Every resident applied to live at Altenheim. In the beginning, the requirements included being of German descent, showing proof of good character, and being at least 60 years old (In 1930, one needed to be of German descent, at least 65, and a resident of Cook County for at least 9 years). The entrance requirement also included a fee. In 1885, those between 60 and 70 paid $300; those over 70 paid $100. In 1930, the minimum fee was $6,000.
In the early years, set far out in the country, Altenheim was set up as a working farm. It had its own gas works, water system, fish pond, laundry, ice house and green houses. Chickens (15,000 of them) and vegetable plots provided supper, with fruit trees for pies.
Through the years, the Frauverein, the Herrnverein (Men’s Society), and the Junior Auxiliary, continued to support Altenheim with money and monthly visits. The Junior Auxiliary entertained the residents”at holidays, at a monthly birthday party, and during the bazaars. German flavor continued into the 1960s; the Frauverein ran fundraising bazaars and Christmas markets highlighted by German goods and food.
Altenheim is the “German Uncle” of Forest Park. Many remember Altenheim’s Attic, a resale shop in various locations on (and just off) Madison Street for 15-20 years.
Many enjoyed Altenheim’s Grove. Church socials, school picnics, veterans gatherings”Legion, VFW and Seebees”and political rallies have taken advantage of the picnic area. Two of the more unusual groups: The Minute Men of Forest Park”not history buffs but rather a sport hunting group”and the Baby Alumni Association, a reunion of babies born at St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital, complete with a “dad-diapering” contest.
Dianne Beaty, remembers singing at Altenheim when she was a Brownie “the land far away where people are old.” Now she works at Altenheim and her daughters do the singing with their troop.
The residents of Altenheim were a community. Even after the farm was surrounded by Forest Park, accounts of the celebrations”birthdays, holidays, springfest”reflected the “gamutlichkeit” that is part of German society. This spirit has continued to the present, nurtured by both staff and residents. Staffer Gayle Fahey says the current residents are “a group of wonderful people”good people, interesting people, inspirational people.”
Altenheim was a wonderful place to live, and a waiting list developed quickly. To meet this growing need, and to continue to update facilities, there were a number of additions and renovations. In 1909, a new hospital building was donated by Miss Alma Seipp. In 1914, an annex was dedicated with a three-day open-air festival. By 1932, another building, this one to the west of the original Victorian building, added 62 rooms, a kitchen and a dining room for 114. In 1941, the old hospital was retired and a new building arrived. In 1955, Altenheim was caring for 300 men and women in five buildings, including the infirmary and the chapel. In 1966, another addition to the infirmary added 46 beds.
During Altenheim’s 120 years, ideas about the proper setting for, and care of, elderly folk has changed. In 1926, the “inmates” were not allowed to marry each other. So it made headlines in the Tribune, on page three, when two residents, Herman Horn, 82, and Maria Leps, 77, left the home, went downtown and married. The staff expected them to return because neither had income or savings. One hopes that they were allowed to return, though that news didn’t make the paper.
Mrs. Schmidt, then president of the home, said “there is a rule against marriage, but there is nothing about inmates coming back in the event they do marry.”
The desired amount of space has also changed dramatically. An article in Der Deutsche Pioneer, a Cincinnati, Ohio, German paper noted that in the original building, there were “51 rooms, which can house 120 people.” Easy math says that strangers lived together, and had only a bedroom as a semi-private space. Renovations in the 1980s converted one building into independent living apartments. Another project, seven to eight years ago, converted the Victorian into apartments.
The past 20 years have seen major changes at Altenheim. First, as mentioned, independent living apartments were carved out of the buildings. Second, the infirmary, the section of Altenheim that provided nursing care, was closed in 2000. Third, the Altenheim no longer requires German heritage.
The decision to offer independent and intermediate care in apartment settings resulted in fewer residents, as a number of rooms were used for each apartment. The one-bedroom apartments are cozy, with high ceilings and large windows, which keep the rooms from feeling cramped. With this decision, Altenheim has become a very small facility”only 56 units and, currently, only 45 residents.
The space formerly housing the nursing facility is not yet remodeled, and could increase the number of apartments, however, the prevailing thought is to use this space for support and recreation rather than more living units.
With the closing of its nursing care, the Altenheim took another major step in a new direction. Once at Altenheim people expected to stay. A chapel on the grounds served their spiritual needs, nursing tended their final illnesses and a small cemetery welcomed their remains. Altenheim was an important nursing center; in 1969, 90 of 200 residents were in the infirmary. Now, without an infirmary, Altenheim residents must move if their health or abilities change.
The regrouping closed the infirmary, two buildings and some land were sold”the Grove and the land between the buildings and the cemetery were purchased by the Village of Forest Park. So far, this land is still open space, currently used by Forest Park police for drills and training exercises. Altenheim still owns its cemetery.
Finally, Altenheim moved away from its German affiliations, now welcoming all, regardless of heritage. Current residents include many from out of state who came to this area because of family and chose Altenheim for their home.
Altenheim is into its second century with a clear vision. Some might consider Altenheim a relic, a leftover from the last century, and therefore easily dismissed. But remodeled facilities, the park-like setting, and, for many residents, family nearby are still attractive. Large-windowed apartments within a Victorian building also have a continuing charm, even in the 21st century.
• Note: Altenheim is offering two specials for seniors. Tour the new grounds and receive a $20 gift certificate good at participating Forest Park businesses. Move in, sign a lease and receive $120 cash and one month’s rent. Contact Gayle Fahey, 366-2206, for more information, and to set up an appointment.