In June 2005, Geoffrey Baer, producer and on-air host for WTTW-Channel 11 in Chicago began writing his latest documentary, “Chicago’s Western Suburbs: From Prairie Soil to Prairie Style.”
Two of the approximately 34 suburbs chosen for inclusion in this program, debuting on Sunday, March 12, at 7 p.m. and Monday, March 20, at 7:30 p.m. were Riverside and Brookfield. Major funding for this project was provided by Harris Bank, and produced in association with the Chicago Historical Museum.
Baer’s name is not unfamiliar to WTTW viewers who have “tele-toured” with him as he twice cruised the Chicago River, hiked through the skyscraper canyons of the loop, explored the lakefront, visited the city’s neighborhoods along the “L” lines, and examined the history of some of Chicago’s other suburban regions. Now it was time for our two villages to be profiled, even if only for a few minutes or so.
You might think that researching so many different communities would be a daunting task, but the job was made easier by focusing only on certain aspects of each village, and then contacting local libraries, historical societies and knowledgeable residents for information. The latter was wherein I became involved.
On Friday, Sept. 2, 2005, the Brookfield Library relayed a message to me from Susan Godfrey, associate producer/researcher for WTTW. Early in 2005, she had begun researching the western suburbs for Baer’s program, and contacted me concerning Brookfield’s oldest homes, the village’s founder, S.E. Gross and his play, “The Merchant Prince of Cornville.”
I telephoned her at once and encountered no problem in pointing her in the direction of early Grossdale homes to be photographed, and the best times of the day to do this, taking advantage of the natural light. I sent her a few copies of my past Landmark articles, “Gross’ Monument to Posterity” (Oct. 20, 1999), and “Paris on the Prairie: The Grand Boulevard Story” (March 5, 2003).
She also expressed amazed disbelief that Gross had, around 1900, actually sued French author Edmond Rostand, contending that Rostand had plagiarized Gross’s play, “Merchant Prince,” and turned it into the well-known “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
I set her straight, saying that it was, indeed, so, and stating turn-of-the-century newspaper dates and quotes to prove it. (Over the next few months, we spoke a few more times, concerning further verification of data.)
The next week, on Sept. 6, Geoffrey Baer and his field-shooting team came out to Brookfield to immortalize the village on film. Scheduled for filming were the Brookfield Zoo, Riverside-Brookfield High School and Victorian homes along Grand Boulevard, at numbers 3617, 3626, 3631, 3633 and 3642.
Then it was over to Riverside, for the next week’s shooting, on Wednesday, Sept. 14. On this shooting list were the swinging bridge, the Riverside Village Hall, the newly restored water tower, the train station, the Riverside Library and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Tomek house at 150 Nuttall Road.
The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright was also to be exhibited by filming the Avery Coonley estate on Scottswood Road and the Coonley Playhouse on Fairbank Road. Information on the Riverside sites was provided by Suzanne Bartholomew, president of the Riverside Historical Commission.
These filming lists were extremely flexible. Some locations were never shot, while others not on the lists were chosen for filming simply by seeing them on the spot, with no preplanning involved.
One unscheduled site used twice in the documentary was the home at 3529 Grand Blvd., one of the original five homes built in Brookfield in 1889 by Walter Simpson. Baer came out for a final shoot on Monday, Sept. 19, at the south gate of Brookfield Zoo and at 3529 Grand Blvd.
Maybe you wonder why it took about a year to finish this film, the fourth in a series of five TV tours of Chicago’s suburban regions. Remember, Brookfield and Riverside were only two of the many communities being researched and/or filmed. Besides all the initial research and writing, there was continuity to worry about, and editing, and a thousand other things.
From the beginning to the end, the program follows two railroad lines: the Burlington and then the Chicago & Northwestern. Get used to seeing many shots of trains pulling into and out of stations. The tour begins with the town of Cicero, mentioning its Al Capone connection, former Town President Betty Loren Maltese and the Western Electric Hawthorne Works plant that closed in 1984.
Berwyn is next, with its fantastic art sculptures at Cermak Plaza. Have you ever seen the “Spindle,” several cars impaled on a spike, by sculptor Dustin Shuler, and commissioned for the price of $75,000? Also appearing are the Houby Day Parade, and an old color video segment of the Ides of March rock group in the 1960s.
Next up is Riverside, one of the first planned villages in the United States, a complete landmark all by itself. Here you’ll see the library, village hall, winding streets, gas lights, current train station and restored water tower. The Frank Lloyd Wright buildings are featured, but pale in number to the ones shown in Oak Park, which is the final village appearing on the program.
Lyons has its mixed moments of glory, with the story of the Hofmann Tower, opened in 1908 by George Hofmann Jr., the Hofmann Dam, the Illinois and Michigan Canal built in 1848 and the village’s infamous “red light” district. Watch here for a truly interesting photograph of Ogden Avenue, taken around 1900, when it was nothing more than a quiet dirt road.
The Hollywood railroad stop’s artificial rock waiting area leads into the section on the Brookfield Zoo and its connection with Edith Rockefeller McCormick. Then come a few more highlights, such as its Tropic World and Seven Seas Dolphinarium. Also discussed are its panda, Su-Lin, and the beloved Ziggy the elephant, who died in 1975.
Brookfield, the village, briefly has its early Grossdale history examined, and some homes up and down the historic Grand Boulevard are featured. A closeup of the Grossdale Train Station Museum pulls back to fully reveal its wide expanse. Lastly comes the mention of S.E. Gross’ Cyrano de Bergerac connection.
LaGrange’s Pet Parade is remarked upon, which draws between 75,000 to 100,000 people each June. Still surviving are some Frank Lloyd Wright houses here, too. The beautifully built Stone Avenue Station is shown, but no detail about it is given.
Almost as a part of the LaGrange section, Countryside is referred to, because of its brush with celebrityhood. Back in 1917, the Marx Brothers tried their hand at chicken farming, to get out of being drafted, so they bought a farm in Countryside.
As might be expected, they botched the whole business, and, instead, spent their days at Wrigley Field watching the Cubs. Once, when an inspector was coming to look over their flock (that was laying poorly), they went into LaGrange, bought up hundreds of eggs and planted them under and around the hens for the inspector to see. Since they were losing money left and right, and their chickens were dying, they finally gave up and went back into show business.
Even though not exactly on the railroad line, Westchester comes in for its day in the sun, next. And I do mean sun. The Wolf Road Prairie is shown in all its beautiful, summery glory”a gasp of relief for all of us winter-weary residents. There is a very interesting history behind the creation of Westchester, and it is well worth noting.
There is a new train station in Western Springs, and the exterior is only briefly shown here. Unfortunately, the interior, all done in old-fashioned varnished wood and bull’s-eye molding, was not photographed. Even the modern ATM machine sits in a cubbyhole with wooden molding around it.
As might be expected, the water tower and its history (opened in 1892 and retired from use in 1962) are covered. Also included here is a segment on the Theater of Western Springs, founded in 1929.
Leaving Cook County, the program now ventures into DuPage County, which bursts at the seams with its own array of interesting sites and history.
Hinsdale has so much going for it that it could merit a program about itself. Let’s see … it was the home of the original Morris the Cat and Bill Veeck (no relation intended). It was also the home of R. Harold Zook, an architect whose work should truly be more widely known and appreciated (his “Hansel and Gretel” houses have a quaint charm, not to mention his “spider web” windows).
McDonald’s Hamburger University gets a mention in the Oak Brook section, along with the venerable Graue Mill, built in 1852, and still in working condition.
Concluding the collection of communities along the Burlington Railroad are Westmont (home of the godfather of the blues, Muddy Waters); Downer’s Grove (with over 200 Sears Houses on its streets, and also the historic Tivoli Theater, the one theater in the U.S. built specifically for showing sound movies); Lisle (home of the Morton Arboretum, another sure cure for wintery cabin fever); and Naperville (with its 13 acre Naper Settlement, Pre-Emption House hotel, where Lincoln once gave a campaign speech and River Walk.)
The tour next follows the DuPage River to Warrenville, West Chicago, Winfield, Wheaton, Carol Stream, Glen Ellyn, Lombard, Addison, Villa Park, Elmhurst, Berkeley, Hillside, Northlake, Melrose Park, Maywood, Forest Park, River Forest and Oak Park.
These 18 communities are no less important than the previously featured ones, and have their own sets of interesting histories, especially Oak Park, which, despite the length of its coverage, still seems to be over too quickly.
Geoffrey Baer’s inspiration for this program was simple enough, as is sometimes the case.
“Each suburban region has its own character,” Baer said. “One of the wonderful things about the western suburbs is the diversity. From ethnic enclaves, to historic, upper-class communities, to sprawling suburbs. Stories about racial integration and change. Native American history. World famous architecture. And, of course, connections to literally dozens of great and famous characters. Wonderful!”
This is a program to be savored, to be tasted with the eyes, the ears and the mind. Yes, especially by the mind, and the memory within, that can, in an instant, fall upon a familiar fact, or a learned legend concerning these communities, and relish the momentary delight of being able to say “I remember that!”
Lastly, there will be some viewers in Brookfield and Riverside who will say that Baer should have put in a piece about this or that, and why was such and such left out? You are not alone. Probably there will be people in every featured community who will say these things. No matter. It’s over. Just watch it all unfold before you, and let yourself enjoy.