Berger Park|Chapter 6
We had seen a post on Instagram, as we all do, that caught our eye. Friends having food and drinks outside on a patio with blue waters seemingly inches away. The tag wasn’t an island resort, it said “Berger Park, Chicago”! What?
This city is full of surprises. Nestled in the north east corner of Edgewater there yet another Chicago Park District gem. Calls were made, a date was set and off we went. With the exception of a nearby café with lakeside views, we knew nothing about this park, but we jumped in the car and headed north to explore local. That is what this project is all about! There are actually three buildings at this park, the Cultural Center, North Mansion and the South Mansion. The story of the Cultural Center is rich, but what we love best is how the story ends. The building was built in 1909 and commissioned by the Samuel Gunder, who was president of a pharmaceutical company. He lived here with his wife and children until 1919.
During the depression the Chicago Bureau of Parks purchased beachfront land and property and named it Granville Beach and Park, based on the adjacent Granville Avenue. The mansion became home to The Clerics of St. Viator for priests in training. In 1965 the Church sold the rights to properties and land to the Chicago Park District and moved out by 1979.
Meet Albert Berger, an avid community member and activist. Because of him, this park became Berger Park. You see he worked tirelessly with the community to turn this land into a city park for everyone to enjoy. By 1982 it was determined that the mansion was in major disrepair and would need to be torn down, but once again the Edgewater community banded together to raise enough funds to save the building. With the added funds from Albert’s son, Ronald, the building was saved! The Cultural Center you can enjoy today is truly the product of community it surrounds.
Good work Edgewater!
What is a Park District Cultural Center?
Good question! A Chicago Park District Cultural Center is a Park District that has cultural programming like art, music and dance. Or, they might host cultural events throughout the year. It is a great way to gain access to all things cultural and there are 13 of them spread throughout the city of Chicago. Turns out, Berger Park is one of those Cultural Centers due to it's rich history and programming.
If you are curious to see another Cultural Center in action, check out our Indian Boundary Park chapter.
The park’s new supervisor, Kristen Rezny, met us at the front desk of the Cultural Center and proceeded to host our visit with warmth and wonderment. She was still getting to know her new park and was thrilled to show us around.
Just inside the door, you immediately sense the history; the mansion this once was. The front room, now a sharing library and sitting area, could have easily been the sitting room with a birds-eye view of Chicago’s busy Sheridan road. We were only there a moment when we heard laughter in the distance from upstairs. Camp was in session.
With Kristen as our guide we headed up to a Theater Camp in session and in full swing. Eileen Tull, the center’s theater instructor was leading the girls in a round of “guess what I am feeling” by making different faces express different emotions. They were clearly having fun.
Eileen is a transplant from Ohio who came to Chicago to study theater. After 10 years doing Chicago storefront theater, she landed here at Berger Park teaching theater! She explained that it felt like a natural fit coming from a family of educators.
After a quick performance by the kids in Theater Camp, we followed Kristen out to keep exploring. Before heading downstairs, we got a special tour of the balcony and upper floors. How was this a park district building? Once again, we found ourselves pinching ourselves.
Next, we headed to the basement, which turns out to be the hidden gem of the Cultural Center!
The room was abuzz.
Right away we met the artists who were gathering for Boris’ jewelry making class in Berger Park's Lapidary Studio. We quickly learned Boris is something of an idol to many. Turns out, he has been with the park district for 33 years teaching lapidary and jewelry making. It’s easy to see how generous he is with his students; he champions their work and guides them along in their process.
On the day we visited, it was Coleen’s last day here, she is soon moving to northern Michigan. So, she was particularly interested in wrapping up several of her projects. She enthusiastically shared her work and showed us how she incorporates stones from places that have deep meaning to her within her jewelry.
There is a nest of studio spaces down here that houses everything from hand building and wheel throwing ceramic studio spaces to a jewelry and lapidary studio! For us at Forward Design, this was a dream.
We also met Dorothy McFarland who has been coming here for years. She originally was just helping her dear friend get to the studio when her health was failing. “My friend couldn’t move well and was scared to take the bus. I helped her get here and ended up joining in Boris’ class. Now she is gone, but here I am!”.
She showed us some of her work and talked about the molds that she had made before getting down to business. She was there to make things for her family but thought that she may one day sell her pieces. You could tell this group knows each other well, they each bring treats to share and vegetables from their gardens, but also are very focused on their individual projects.
It was our joy as well. Thanks for showing us around, Boris.
OUR FAVORITE ROOM: The one with a view
We left the jewelry studio and headed back upstairs. The windows on the main floor called us to the lake. It is peaceful and warm in this room and we had it all to ourselves. The views of Lake Michigan are clearly what drew us here, but the more we looked around, we saw details from a lavish life that once was. There is stained glass, impeccably maintained warm wood details and mosaic tile throughout. This is also Kristen’s favorite room. With views of the lake, how could it not be? We took this chance to photograph her while we were here enjoying the view.
Kristen, the park director, grew up on Chicago’s Northwest side. Her local park was Riis Park at Fullerton and Austin and has been with the park district 14 years. She is new to this Cultural Center but seemed to be settling right in when we visited.
It was time to get outside! It’s the middle of the day in the middle of the week and the grounds surrounding the Cultural Center were dotted with various people enjoying the lake. There was an older couple who said they try to come here each summer; that this was their special get away. There were children with parents or caretakers climbing the jungle gym or exploring the rocks at the shore.
Of course, there is also the café.
The Waterfront Café was what originally drew us to Berger Park. There are not many places in the city where you can sit and have something to eat and drink right at the shore’s edge. We had been here at night for a beer, but today it was sunny and lunch was in full swing. The café isn’t run by the Park District but is a welcomed partner of the park. They occasionally have live music in the evenings and we thought it would be a great place to hang out in the summer.
It is easy to imagine what this park is like when it is in full swing, but we were happy to be there to see it when we did. It is lovely and a perfect way to spend the day Out of the Office from Forward Design.
Have you been?
We want to hear from you… do you have any suggestions for a Fieldhouse near you that has a story to tell?