In the 1830s, Chicago, though still a village, had aspirations not only to become a city, but one with glorious parks as well.
“They adopted the Latin phrase ‘urbs in horto’ meaning city in a garden,” says Julia Bachrach, historian and reservationist for the Chicago Park District and author of The City in a Garden: A History of Chicago's Parks, Second Edition (Center for American Places 2012; $17.50). “There were only a few thousand people back then.”
But the newly minted city’s ambitions, grandiose as they might have seemed regarding swamp land best known for its abundance of wild onions and the accompanied smell, were real and realized.
This being Chicago, the idea of public gardens was not just a homage to nature’s beauty. Early developers in the 1840s and 50s realized that neighborhood lots sold more quickly when there was a park nearby. But no matter the reason, today, Chicago has 585 diverse parks encompassing 8200 acres which are home to 250 historic buildings. More than 100 of Chicago’s parks are considered historically significant.
Bachrach's childhood love of house museums and historic architecture led her into a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Wisconsin. Her career morphed into a job as a preservation coordinator in Highland Park and then into a post with the Chicago Parks Department.
She was hired by Ed Ward Uhlir, now director of design, architecture and landscape for Millennium Park. When working as an engineer for the park district in 1987, he discovered an immense cache of historic plans, photographs and maps dating to 1871 in a long forgotten sub-basement beneath Soldier Field. Having interviewed Bachrach but not having a job for her at the time, he now saw that her skills would be perfect for helping organize the thousands of artifacts.
Bachrach, who received a national Stewardship Excellence Award from the Cultural Landscape Foundation and for the last two years has served on the board of trustees for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, is herself a trove of information. She is a historic preservationist who likes to unravel the skeins of information found in dusty archives, enjoying the myriad of directions in which they lead.
“I was doing research on the original landscape of Lincoln Park and going back through all the original contracts,” says Bachrach, in a voice that makes you aware that for her, reading 150-year-old construction contracts handwritten in ink is akin to most of us enjoying an ice cream sundae. “The zoo began in 1868 and landscaper Swain Nelson and his cousin were hired to develop it. Many of the residents in the unimproved areas north of there had cows which would just wonder on the construction site. So the commissioner gave Nelson permission to round them up and put them in an enclosure and at night, when people came to get their cows, charge $15, which was a lot of money back then.”
The projects she’s been involved with include restoring the 2.5-acre Lily Pool designed by Alfred Caldwell in the 1930s which was designated a National Historic Landmark in Lincoln Park, converting the old Stearns Quarry into a 27-acre nature park and the revitalization of Columbus Park created by landscape architect Jens Jensen between 1915 and 1920. The 144-acre Prairie style park, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003, is considered Jensen’s public masterpiece.
Currently she is at work on bringing to fruition such projects as the multi-use Bloomingdale Trail which follows along an abandoned railroad track and rescuing Northerly Park Island.
“It was part of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago to have a series of islands,” says Bachrach regarding the city’s famed architect and planner. “He wanted to have a series of islands between Jackson and Grant Parks. We’re working to develop it for urban camping and as a place to have scuba diving for shipwrecks.”
Bachrach’s commitment to historic architecture includes the century-old home she shares with her husband. Built in 1908 and owned by one family for more than 90 years, the garden is also vintage, with bearded iris and 30 peonies that she strongly believes date back to the home’s early days.
Her interest in parks doesn’t stop either in her backyard or at the city limits. An admirer of Jensen, she notes that he had very strong ties to the Indiana Dunes and Marquette Park in Miller Beach.
“He was involved in the whole movement to save the dunes, he’d give speeches on conservation and was one of the founders of the Prairie Club,” she says about the organization. “Jens was a very compelling character. He dressed beautifully, he’d wear these ascots and tailored suits – it turns out when you look at the records that several of his clients were haberdashers.”