How long have Riversiders fretted over the condition of their sidewalks? Well, at least since 1877.
Just six years after the Riverside Improvement Company published its marketing pamphlet “Riverside in 1871,” boosting the nascent community’s public infrastructure, including the “Trinidad asphalt, tar and gravel” sidewalks (the exposed aggregate of the day), the place was kind of a wreck.
“The sidewalks (tar concrete) have quite generally failed,” wrote Louis Y. Schermerhorn in a letter to Riverside’s designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, on April 13, 1877.
The statement comes from a four-page handwritten letter by the man who was hired as chief engineer to implement the Riverside Improvement Company’s general plan of the village. Schermerhorn previously worked alongside Olmsted on the construction of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York. Olmsted apparently had written his friend to see how his innovative planned suburb was holding up.
Schermerhorn built a grand home, designed by William LeBaron Jenney, which still stands overlooking Scottswood Common (it’s the red Swiss gothic style home at 124 Scottswood Road, a local landmark).
While a copy of the letter has been floating around for quite some time, no one actually knew what it said, because Schermerhorn’s florid handwriting was difficult to decipher.
But earlier this year, Jim Petrzilka, a board member of the Frederick Law Olmsted Society and the head of the organization’s research committee, spent a couple of weeks cracking the Schermerhorn code. The society published the letter in full in its summer newsletter.
“I’m retired, so I thought I really ought to give it some attention. I couldn’t do it all at once,” said Petrzilka. “I’d get a couple of words here and there. There was hardly any punctuation and no paragraphing.”
The letter is a window into the dicey early years of Riverside, which was both a visionary plan and, apparently, an elaborate real estate scam. The lawsuits started coming almost immediately.
Starting around 1872, Emery Childs, the president of the Riverside Improvement Company, and a number of corporations connected to the Riverside venture were repeatedly sued by investors claiming they’d been bilked and vendors who complained they’d been stiffed.
In April 1873, a butcher filed suit against the Riverside Hotel Company to recover $700 he provided in porterhouse steaks, tenderloin, lamb, liver, bacon and other food “which grace the table of a high-toned, semi-private hotel,” according to an article in the Chicago Tribune.
Childs, according to Petrzilka, was “a Bernie Madoff kind of character,” who blew town back to the East Coast amid all the litigation. Left holding the bag was David Gage, the man who sold his Riverside Farm to the company, land which formed the core of Riverside.
Gage, who was the Chicago city treasurer, was later indicted essentially for loaning himself city funds to prop up the Riverside venture. He wasn’t convicted, but to cover a shortfall of about $700,000 in city funds, Gage surrendered 225 acres of property he still owned in the area (including what is now the Cermak Plaza and Morton West High School in Berwyn and all of North Riverside south of Cermak Road and east of Lathrop Avenue).
The hotel, a summer resort which the Riverside Improvement company boasted in 1871 as “the most complete and comfortable hotel in the United States,” was on shaky ground just four years after the butcher filed his lawsuit.
According to Schermerhorn’s letter, “the hotel is empty and going to destruction.” A fire would finish the job a decade later, on April 23. 1887.
In 1877, according to the letter, there were just 45 homes in the community, which by then had been incorporated as a municipality “with a good Board of Trustees who are interested in the preservation of the improvements.”
A good number of the homes at that time were being rented out at the going rate of $25 a month by mortgage holders who had foreclosed on the properties as a result of the Panic of 1873, which was still being keenly felt by people swept up in the rampant real estate speculation that helped fuel that economic crash and of which Riverside was a part.
Schermerhorn tells Olmsted that the “ruinously depressed condition of real estate makes property quite unsalable,” adding that property values were between one-quarter and one-half of the values fixed by the Riverside Improvement Company.
In the meantime, anyone who could hang onto their properties, like Schermerhorn, did so, hoping on a recovery that might bring returns. At the same time, speculators were snapping up bargains in the village.
But the village was soldiering forward. The village government was trying to maintain the public lands to the best of its ability, which was cutting the grass just three times during the summer.
The climate, said Schermerhorn, “was hard on trees and shrubs.” About 10 percent of the trees planted as part of Olmsted’s plan had died, as had most of the shrubs. The gas works, which generated gas that flowed to residences and street lamps via a series of pipes, had stopped operating because residents didn’t want to pay the $500 assessment needed to replace the “retorts,” which generated the gas.
But the sewer system and water works were both working and the roads, said Schermerhorn, were “in perfect condition.”
All in all, concluded Schermerhorn, “The test of time and use has demonstrated the correctness of the general principles of construction and has proved adequate to all demands.”