Ask anyone, “What is Cummings Park?” and you’ll probably get a blank stare. Perhaps a new shopping mall? A few rare individuals might correctly identify it as the eastern entry to River Forest, at the northwest corner of Lake Street and Harlem Avenue. It’s the site of the wrecked remains of a once-classical band shell pavilion.

But things are beginning to happen at Cummings Park. Preservationists are looking at the dilapidated park and are questioning why River Forest is wasting such a valuable site. “This is the gateway to our beautiful community,” says Laurel McMahon, president of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest. “But it’s an eyesore.”

Some months ago, the Rotary Club explored the possibility of taking on the band shell as a 100th anniversary project. But it was later rejected. Members felt it was too large a project to be completed in time for the fall anniversary date.

But renewed interest has fired up the project. The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest has named the band shell as a project to be restored for River Forest’s 125th birthday. A special anniversary committee is working on a schedule of events.

“The first step is to contact the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, which owns the land, to find out what they are willing to do to rejuvenate Cummings Park,” says McMahon. “We want to agree on something that will benefit the whole community. In the past, we have been reassured that the Forest Preserve District is willing to work with us. It’s crucial to find out what they’re willing to do.”

McMahon has started meeting with Steven Bylina, the district’s general superintendent, with an eye toward working out plans for improving Cummings Park. Both funding and an agreement with the district will determine what can be accomplished, she explains.

The Village of River Forest already is set to install landscape and streetscape improvements at the “eastern gateway” intersection of Lake Street and Harlem Avenue, part of its Lake Street corridor plan. Improvements include low-slung ornamental brick and wrought-iron fencing, decorative foliage and street lights.

A history lesson

Cummings Park is named after E. A. Cummings, who died in 1922 at the age of 79. Because of his importance, there was a movement to change the name of Harlem Avenue to Cummings but it was defeated.

Ernest Augustus Cummings was a colorful, respected philanthropist, an entrepreneur active in banking, real estate and community development. His real estate firm, established in 1869, developed over 200 subdivisions including the town of Ridgeland in 1872. He founded the West Town Bus Company. Besides being a director of the Chicago Title and Trust, he was director of five additional local banks. He also helped found the Chicago Union League Club, the Oak Park Club and the Oak Park Country Club.

One of his largest holdings was the tract at Harlem and Lake leased by the Oak Park Golf Club, which was organized in 1898. In 1901, Frank Lloyd Wright designed its clubhouse, an innovative board and batten structure. In 1905, the land was subdivided and the club was forced to move west.

Negotiations to save the Wright structure failed and it was destroyed on Memorial Day, 1905.

In another dramatic chapter, Cummings offered land to the newly-formed River Forest Tennis Club for $1 a year. A hastily constructed clubhouse was destroyed by fire on July 4, 1905. Never daunted, a new group comprised of architects Charles White, Vernon Watson and Wright designed a clubhouse of dark brown-stained board and batten with prow shaped sides.

In 1920, when the land was sold to the Forest Preserve District, the clubhouse was sawed into three parts and horse drawn to its new site at Lathrop Avenue in River Forest, where it remains today. During this period, the southern half of Cummings Park was used by the community for picnics, athletic events, parades, bond sales and band concerts.

Cummings commissioned Wright to build his real estate office at the intersection of Lake Street and Harlem Avenue. Although it was the most exceptional real estate office ever built, and was featured in many papers and magazines, it also was eventually torn down.

At the time of his death in 1922, Cummings left a bequest of $25,000, to “be expended as soon as practical after my death, with the consent and approval of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, for the beautification and improvement of the Cummings Tract or for the creation of some suitable improvement or memorial therein.” A committee of 10 residents finally settled on a bandstand pavilion as the Cummings memorial.

The Greek open air theater was designed by Charles White of the firm of White and Weber in 1925. At that time, the Cummings land was added to the forest preserve holdings. Because Cummings had specified a certain dollar amount, the architects had a difficult time keeping the project within the required parameters. The memorial was described as being in the style of the Greeks, of white Bedford stone, except for the stately entrance and exit. There were even lavatories and dressing rooms. Newspaper accounts raved: “Cummings Square to have a festive air and to be an adornment for the sister communities.”

The park’s potential

Although its future is uncertain, a leading Chicago architect see Cummings Park as one of the most undervalued and underused in the area. Joseph Antunovich, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and head of his own firm, Antunovich Associates, sees the park as a potential future model of Prairie parks.

“I’m even committed to donating the services of my firm because I care about this project,” he notes. Antunovich’s firm is preparing plans for renovating the memorial and the park space.

McMahon originally asked Antunovich to take a look at Cummings Park. “He was so impressed with what a resource this could be,” she says. “He said it’s so rare to find open space in such a developed community, and it could be a real jewel.”

Some environmentalists want to see Cummings Park replanted with native shrubs, trees, grasses and flowers. Local garden clubs have worked as volunteers with this space for many years and would like to see it become a “real park.” A baseball diamond, constructed through an agreement between the Forest Preserve District and the River Forest Park District, is in use in the summer, and parent groups are ready to safeguard their turf.

McMahon is hopeful that, on the occasion of River Forest’s 125th birthday, Cummings Park can become a real community asset for both River Forest and Oak Park. “It could be such a cool meeting place on the border of our two towns,” she says.

Laura Stuart contributed to this story.

Join the discussion on social media!