A lot of attention has been paid to the artists that thrived in Park Ridge a century ago, including the Kalo silversmiths and Alfonso Iannelli, but less focus has been put on art and culture circles inhabited by everyday folk, which were equally active. While less glamorous a history, perhaps, it has far more significance for the Library.

Park Ridge didn’t have a library until 1913, but it had its origins in the literary clubs, non-professional art leagues, and cultural institutions of the town – especially those run by women – years earlier.

The late 19th Century was a period in history when prominent Americans living outside the cultural hubs of the East Coast were anxious to prove that they could be refined, and had the means to do so. In this spirit Bertha Palmer drove the creation of the Palmer House, with its ballrooms and frescoed ceilings, and residents in smaller communities, such as Mr. and Mrs. George B. Carpenter, opened their doors to cultural events.
Carpenter Home
They were joined in Park Ridge by societies like the Pierians, men and women who met on the site of the Gillick building at Main and Prospect to discuss political, literary, and scientific subjects. In 1894 another group of 20 women formed the Tuesday Literary Club, eventually changing its name to the Park Ridge Women’s Club. Their established purpose was to undertake the study of history, literature, and art.

An example of the kind of programs offered by the Park Ridge Women's Club in the early 20th century.

An example of the kind of programs offered by the Park Ridge Women’s Club in the early 20th century.

These groups, with their semi-formal structure, combined elements of the salon, continuing education classroom, and social networking. They not only knit together the community and provided recreation, but they also helped drive the development of the town itself.

By the turn of the century Park Ridge was hosting operettas, concerts, lectures, poetry readings, and plays – it’s not surprising that talk of a library would start early. In 1910, when members of the Park Ridge Women’s Club heard about Andrew Carnegie’s offer to fund the creation of public libraries, a group of women (and one man) met in the home of Mrs. J.H. Collins to discuss the possibilities. They worked to obtain the City’s permission for the project and drafted a letter to the Carnegie Foundation, which would eventually grant $7,500 for the project.

It will be interesting in later posts to talk about some of the ways that Park Ridge maintained this dedication to the arts and culture over the years – through its arts studios as well as its clubs and, of course, the Library. While some of that interest flagged in the last few decades, there has been something of a revival. The success of the Kalo Foundation to generate support for the Iannelli Studio reflects a longing by people to reestablish a connection to that heritage.

Many older organizations still exist, including the Park Ridge Art League and the Fine Arts Society. And the Library itself attracts more than 30,000 people each year for book discussions, storytimes, lectures, concerts, and other free programs.

These are all healthy signs, even in an era dominated by online social media and other distractions. It’s nice to imagine Park Ridge taking its place once again as a city where people embrace art, culture, and the kind of community that comes from gathering together. Park Ridge once held this distinction, and it’s a reputation worth getting back.