Putting Oak Park on the Hemingway map

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Several years ago, I walked past the Oak Park Arts Center, 200 N. Oak Park Ave., as two women walked out, one telling the other, "I found it online. Hemingway in Oak Park, who knew?"

A lot of people now know about Hemingway's connection to Oak Park, thanks to the Ernest Hemingway Museum, tucked neatly away in the recesses of this former Christian Science temple for the past 27 years. 

But not anymore. The museum closed last Sunday for good. Well, maybe not so good.

"It sucks," said Conni Irwin, who, since 1994, has been here most days, welcoming visitors and running the gift shop.

"I'm in mourning."

She isn't the only one. It's a sad time for the almost exclusively volunteer-run Ernest Hemingway Foundation, which has been struggling gamely for the past 34 years to bring awareness of Hemingway's Oak Park period to a general public that seems more interested in the village's other claim to fame — Frank Lloyd Wright. 

But Hemingway was born and lived the first 20 years of his life here. Oak Park was a major formative influence in his development as the best-known, best-read American writer of the 20th century.

In spite of that, for a long time the only thing people seemed to know about Hemingway and Oak Park was a disparaging description, "the village of broad streets and narrow minds," which Ernie never said.

"No one's ever found any evidence of it," says Scott Schwar, the foundation's longtime volunteer executive director (1987-98 and 1998-2003), whose involvement goes back to 1984, just after the organization was founded by Morris Buske, Chuck Bednar, Redd Griffin, Wallis Austin, Roy Hlavasek, and Jeanette Fields. 

"He had a difficult relationship with his mother later in life," he notes, "but not Oak Park."

Schwar is here, like me, for a final walk-through of this polished and professional-looking museum, designed in 1989 by Dain Torgeson — who also designed the museum of another Oak Park notable, McDonald's Ray Kroc, in Oak Brook. Who knew?

The foundation's founders worked to build this collection over many years. Fortunately for us, Hemingway lived a well-documented life. The family took lots of photos (Grace Hall Hemingway kept scrapbooks of all her children), and Ernie himself was a packrat, even keeping logs of his gaming and fishing expeditions.

"It's a great record of a creative life," Schwar says. 

The board members cultivated contacts with the family and the orbiting Hemingway world, which resulted in friendly relations and a willingness to donate material, such as the famous "Dear Ernie" letter from Agnes Von Kurowsky via the Sanfords in Michigan (older sister Marcelline's family), Waring Jones' collection of Key West items, and Frank Laurence's movie posters from films based on Hemingway's works. 

It helped, Schwar says, that "we looked at him as an artist first and as a student of the world."

But it was the arrangement that distinguished the museum from your run-of-the-mill memorabilia collection. Torgeson, a commercial designer, settled on the concept of "doorways," four physical doors (scavenged by Gini Cassin from the old village hall) representing the major influences of the budding author's Oak Park life: Family, Education, The Outdoors, and World War I — each door accompanied by a large banner, featuring passages from his writing. 

Thanks to a $25,000 loan from the village (since repaid) and helpful landlords Chatka and Tony Ruggiero, the museum opened in 1990. In 2000, the museum added a fifth element, "Picturing Hemingway, A Writer in His Time," a portion of the Smithsonian's traveling exhibit, marking the writer's 1999 centennial.

The museum brought in 7,000-10,000 people per year, which was instrumental in promoting awareness of Oak Park's role in Hemingway's life, according to Allan Baldwin, a former board chair who has been involved in the breakdown of the exhibits and their redistribution — some items to the Oak Park Public Library's archive center, the Historical Society's new museum, the Hemingway Birth Home just up the street, OPRF High School, the Field Museum, possibly the Kennedy Library's Hemingway collection in Boston, or to storage.

The plan is to digitize the exhibit photos and text so the museum's educational mission can continue and to build the Hemingway Center for Writing and Research on the Birth Home property, 339 N. Oak Park Ave., where much of this material will be available in video format. 

According to current board chair John Berry, "The 2,100-square-foot center will house exhibits, some educational space, the bookstore and two offices."

He says the board wanted to keep the museum open until the new $1.2 million facility was completed, but a former board member who offered to underwrite the $25K annual rent died suddenly in 2016. Instead, the funds they save on rent will jumpstart their capital campaign to finance the new building and also pay for upkeep of the Birthplace Home.

So as four doors close, another opens.

Over the years, the foundation has hosted scholarly gatherings, including an international conference on Hemingway just last year. But their main accomplishment is putting Oak Park on the Hemingway map. "The child is father to the man," Schwar says. Understanding Oak Park's role is essential to understanding the writer he became.

"We're now a valuable player in the Hemingway world," says Schwar.

But the world has changed and so have museums, says Baldwin. The proliferation of digital media has changed the public's expectations. "People want something more interactive," he notes. "The era of this kind of museum is passing."

The foundation recently hired a new executive director, Baldwin adds, and though this chapter has ended, they're focusing on the future. They would like to have the new center up and running by 2020, depending, of course, on fundraising.

"I put in too many hours here not to be sad," Baldwin says, looking around, "but I'm a pragmatist."

"It's tough," Schwar agrees, "but I also understand the need for change."

The important thing, he says, is to make the case for why Hemingway is important. 

"Not everyone knows that anymore." 

Most people know the myth, frequently exaggerated, better than the man. But the man was better than the myth. And the writer was better than both.

"He had a great appetite for life and was an adventurer," says Schwar, who now leads tours to the Hemingway sites in Cuba and abroad, "but first and foremost, he was an artist."

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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