What Makes Park Forest Special?
It is the first fully-planned, post-World War II suburb, with schools, churches, shopping and homes incorporated into the original plan. It was not a subdivision like the Levittowns in New York and Pennsylvania.
Park Forest was also home to one of the first two shopping centers. The architecture and planning firm, Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett laid out the plans and designed the townhomes, shopping centers, many of the schools and some of the churches.
The builders were innovators in home construction and in city planning. They set up methods of efficiency in mass production of homes that were imitated throughout the country. Park Forest was the largest project and one of the very first to use natural gas. Thanks to Chief Engineer, Charles Waldmann, they were one of the first communities to put their utilities underground.
American Community Builders, when they still had about 15 years of building ahead of them on Park Forest, went to the residents in November 27, 1948 and asked them to incorporate as a Village. In effect, ACB put itself under the rule of its own tenants, while it still had years of building left on the project. The Villagers turned out to be highly educated and took developing a Village government very seriously. They also took very seriously the future planning of the community, the schools, social organizations and everything else they did. The fact that they were given the reigns of the village so early deeply affected the way the citizens developed into such a socially proactive group. There were almost no citizens over the age of 30. Everything the residents wanted to do, they had to learn how to do on their own, or go to experts in how to set up the best case scenario of anything they were trying to do.
The village was integrated, peacefully, in December 1959. This happened at a time when other suburbs across the country, including the Levvittowns, were experiencing serious acts of discrimination against their first African American residents. The Social Action Committee of the Unitarian Church helped bring the first African American, Dr. Charles Z. Wilson, and his family to Park Forest. The Human Relations Commission joined the SAC in going into the neighborhoods to ease the way of each African American family for many years after that. Later, Park Forest instituted a program of Integration Maintenance to avoid block-busting and white flight, successfully maintaining a well-balanced, integrated village.
Park Forest has been studied for integration, sociology, city planning and the history of suburbia in the mid-20th century. William H. Whyte's book, The Organization Man, published in 1956, was researched here. Gregory Randall published, America's Original GI Town in 2000. Both books are used as textbooks around the world. Jerry Shnay wrote Park Forest Dreams and Challenges for Arcadia Publishing. It sells around the world, and you can buy it in the museum.
Many other books on the history of city planning, sociology and historic preservation of architecture make reference to Park Forest.
Several museums have done exhibits based on Park Forest and have used our collection for them. The Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC has a section on Park Forest in its long term exhibit, "America on the Move." Our archivist, Jane Nicoll helped their curators find the central image of that exhibit, a color ad for housing, and supplied them with many other images and documents used in the exhibit. We are very proud that our collection has things on display in Washington for all the world to see.
And Park Forest is special for its "livability." It is full of amenities, green parkways, bike paths, the Wetlands Reclamation Project, the Aqua Center and the Tennis and Racquet Club. It has Freedom Hall for performing arts, Illinois Theatre Center, Tall Grass Art Center, the active Park Forest Historical Society, the 1950s Park Forest House Museum, an involved public library, other art galleries, and dance and music schools.