The last week of July is sacred time, peak summer, pinnacle of my year. When the weather is as temperate and benign as it was last week, life doesn’t get any better — with just enough rain of late to keep the grass green going into August, which is rare.
Undistracted by chores or email, I gave the sky my full attention. Sapphire mornings gave way predictably to the arrival of great battleship cumulus each noon, looking like the Pacific fleet pulling into port. Summer sky.
During the past week, I spent a lot of time in Oak Park’s crown jewels: Mills Park, Scoville Park, Austin Gardens, and the grounds of Cheney Mansion. Each has an interesting story and involves a great house. Two are still standing, Cheney Mansion and Pleasant Home, sold or bequeathed to the Park District of Oak Park, as were the houses in Scoville Park and Austin Gardens, which no longer exist, except in the informational graphics the park district provides.
All four can be reached on a short walk, three connected by Ontario Street, beginning with Cheney at Euclid Avenue, Scoville at Oak Park Avenue, and Austin Gardens at Forest Avenue. From there it’s three blocks south, down Forest/Home Avenue, to Pleasant Street. At the intersection of Pleasant and Home, you’ll find Pleasant Home, George Maher’s masterwork, built originally for John and Mamie Farson and, after John died in 1910, purchased by Herbert Mills (a colorful character known as “The Slot Machine King” for the one-armed bandits his West Side factory produced). He lived there until he died in 1939, when the Mills family transferred ownership to the park district. The expansive grounds became Mills Park. An extensive recent rehab made the park a favorite shortcut for joggers, dog walkers and others seeking solace, sanctuary and sanity in a troubled world. That includes butterflies who take nourishment in the milkweed patch.
Pleasant Home hosts weddings and other events, many held on the biggest porch in town — where this Thursday night, for instance, and the next three, up to a hundred people will watch silent comedy films, accompanied by the home’s piano.
These four “green spaces” are described as “passive parks” — in spite of the highly energized badminton match I watched Friday night in the Mills Park meadow.
Austin Gardens is, if not “passive,” then placid nine months of the year, but every June, a stage erupts in the meadow and poor players (but fine performers) strut and fret many hours upon it. This year’s summer Shakespeare offering bears the counter-seasonal title, “The Winter’s Tale.”
Otherwise, Austin Gardens, half forest, half meadow, is an oasis of tranquility downtown, though infringed by hissing and whining high-rises that overhang and squelch the illusion of bucolic isolation. As you contemplate the surrounding serenity, the thought keeps intruding that we could put a man on the moon, but somehow we can’t design a quiet truck.
Scoville Park is dominated by the towering World War I memorial, but 110 years ago, it was the site of Charles Scoville’s grand home, which can be seen in the graphic just beyond the curious-looking “Horse Fountain” at the corner of Oak Park and Lake. The hilltop monument was dedicated in 1926 by the vice president of the U.S., but Oak Park being Oak Park, it has a higher calling. Despite the visually prominent military figures, it is named “Peace Triumphant,” a notion reinforced by the children who climb the massive bronze plaques listing the names of those who served, and some who died there. They would likely take little umbrage at this trespass, and the angelic female statue looking down seemingly approves, since innocent children represent better than anyone or anything else the meaning of peace triumphant — or life triumphant, best facilitated by peace.
On summer Sunday nights, Scoville defies its passive label as crowds gather to listen while a band plays and kids cavort in front of the well-disguised stage. On late July summer afternoons, however, one has the luxury of wondering when the last of the living named on these plaques passed and what it would take to track that down. Such thoughts surface in placid settings, all of which are well-benched and shaded, with anchoring trees — a great swirling elm atop Scoville, a rare, graceful willow in Austin Gardens, a sturdy ginkgo at Cheney, and flowering horse chestnuts at Mills.
Many try to hang the nickname “Oak No Park” around this town’s neck, owing to the dearth of parking, but we might better adopt “Oak Yes Parks” to celebrate these serene spaces. To be sure, there are many fine parks in the Oak Park system — Lindberg and Taylor, Barrie, Rehm, and more — but most are dedicated to recreation not re-creation, where the heart feels whole.
From our “village green” (Scoville) to our “village porch” (Pleasant Home), these four are the best places to lose yourself when a summer day beckons outside — and where you can find yourself again, and feel grateful for the foresight and generosity of the Cheney, Scoville, Mills and Austin families who bestowed these micro-Edens.
And also the many who protected, preserved and restored them to their current idyllic beauty.