It's more than a magnet for skateboarders, of course, or a hangout for teens smoking whatever, or a place to sit and read, or a climbing structure for tots, or an excuse to plant lovely flowers in front. It is our most monumental monument, our most familiar landmark, a granite "shaft" rising from the geological ridge running through the center of town.
It is, in effect, Oak Park's town center.
But it doesn't belong only to Oak Park. It is officially the Oak Park-River Forest War Memorial, "erected by the citizens of Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois in honor of the men of this community who took part in the World War, 1914-1918." Many of the 2,446 names on the bronze plaques adorning the memorial were residents of River Forest, and River Foresters were among those who donated the $52,573.63 cost of creating it.
Actually the "public subscription" efforts tallied $52,206.69, but the effort, spearheaded by a committee, started fundraising efforts as early as 1921, so the investment earnings on the fund topped out at $59,267.46, leaving the Park District of Oak Park with a trust fund of $6,693. 83 to be used for maintenance and cleaning.
If no one ever touched that fund, it would probably hold a hefty sum today. Maybe the park district should check its records because the war memorial needs restoration, and it will likely cost far more than the original price tag for putting it up.
It also has a name-Peace Triumphant-which is ironic because everyone knows it as the "war memorial." And "The Great War" was what residents of the two villages wanted to remember when they started talking about a way to commemorate in 1919. By January of 1920, architect Charles E. White Jr. had submitted a proposal for a "modern monumental building of Greek architecture, built of brick and Bedford stone." The Oak Leaves, Jan. 17, 1920, has a sketch if you're interested in what it might have looked like.
Cooler heads, fortunately, prevailed, and by March of 1921, a committee was selected to raise funds for a more modest memorial. Chaired by Edward E. Morrell, the committee included Mrs. Gordon L. Whipple, Mrs. F.H. Bartholomew, Frank W. Swett, O.C. Doering, Herbert J. Ullman, Hyde W. Perce, Joseph H. Roy, H.W. Ames, F.J.C. Borwell, R. Leroy Sias, Major Charles Roth (whose name is on the monument), C.S. Tuttle, W.N. Brown, and Col. A.D. Rehm (also on the monument and after whom a park is named).
Imperishable constellation of gold stars
"Once More: 'Get In-Help Win," a fundraising brochure urged. "Over 2,000 Oak Park and River Forest boys responded to the call of their country and humanity to fight in the World War," the brochure proclaimed. "More than 50 of these heroes never returned. Fifty gold stars! Imperishable constellation!"
The 56 who died are listed on a large bronze plaque on the north face of the memorial, along with a list of the battles where they perished. Plaques on the front and sides of the monument list those who served and returned alive.
Oak Park sculptor Gilbert P. Riswold, modeled the figure of Columbia on his wife, Anna, and the three bronze figures, along with the plaques, were manufactured by American Art Bronze Foundry on the West Side, whose proprietor, Jules Berchem, was also an Oak Parker, and whose son, Alfred, is one of the names on the plaques.
Riswold described his work-in-progress for the fundraising pamphlet as follows:
"This model, designed with special consideration for its proposed location in Scoville Park, overlooking Lake Street, Oak Park, depicts a group consisting of four figures in bronze, three of which, personifying the forces of Land, Air and Sea, are grouped in front of a fourth figure, personifying Columbia in the act of sheathing her sword-the group, by its attitude, suggesting the task accomplished: Peace, the dawn of a new era.
"The bronze sets against a pilon of granite designed in classic lines to harmonize with the sculpture. Around the base of the monument, space is provided for the names of those enlisted from the villages of Oak Park and River Forest, in the service, while special provision is made for the names of those who gave their lives for the cause. The rear of the memorial will be enriched by a sculptured relief, commemorative of the triumphant home coming, while surmounting the whole will be carved the national emblem."
For whatever reasons, the plan was altered slightly. The figure of Columbis was not cast in bronze, but is part of the granite base. The relief on the back, showing a soldier being welcomed with open arms by an ethereal figure, never made it past the clay model shown in the brochure. Instead, a 15 x 5-foot plaque listing the dead takes up most of the space.
Aiming for Pershing, settling for Dawes
But the organizers were not otherwise shy about their plans. In 1921, the year the effort was launched, they invited no less a figure than General "Black Jack" Pershing himself to attend the Armistice Day ceremony. The regrets letter, sent to "Morris E. Prescott, Worshipful Master, Oak Park Lodge #540, Masonic Temple, 127 N. Oak Park Ave. (Scoville Square, formerly the Gilmore's building)" was signed by Pershing's aide-de-camp, George C. Marshall Jr. (of Marshall Plan fame).
By 1925, however, when the memorial was ready to be unveiled, Oak Park had managed to land the Vice President of the United States, General Charles G. Dawes (originally from Evanston), as the guest of honor. The main address was delivered by Major General James G. Harbord (who, according to the newspaper, railed against "the Volstead law and the reign of bureacracy"). Music was provided by the U.S. Great Lakes Naval Training Station band and the Oak Park and River Forest High School band "and chorus of 200 voices."
The event was scheduled on Nov. 11-not at 11 a.m. as is customary today (11th day, 11th month, 11th hour) but at 2:30 p.m. "The afternoon has been declared a half holiday," the Oak Leaves noted. From 1 to 2 p.m., "national airs" were played on the chimes at nearby Grace Episcopal Church, and beginning at 2, "pupils of the public schools of the two villages will come marching from their buildings to the scene of the ceremonies." The honored guests were escorted across the avenue from the Oak Park Club. Amplifiers were installed to enable the estimated crowd of 4,000 plus to hear the proceedings, "and for the country at large, the new and powerful station of WLS will broadcast [via] special telephone wires connecting the studio in the Sherman House in Chicago."
According to the report in the Oak Park Times newspaper, "The sky was lowery, the air still, with a touch of Indian summer." The headline read, "Memorial Shaft Unveiled in Scoville Park - A Proud Day for the Boys who Saw Service in the Great World's War in Oak Park's Quota," the writer waxing ecstatic, noting that the new memorial "will stand through the long years of its existence as a reminder of their supreme sacrifice on the field of battle, that civilization might go forward and achieve still greater things in the world of Christian protection."
The Times described the monument as 24 feet high on a base approximately 20 feet square. The Oak Leaves noted that "in mass meeting assembled, the people of the two villages decided upon the form that the memorial should take and their wishes and ideas were carved in granite and cast in bronze."
After the unveiling, the "Gold Star" mothers of those who had died laid a wreath.
Time not only dims memory. It's hard on war memorials, too. Eighty-one years after its unveiling, the Park District of Oak Park has set in motion plans to restore the aging monument. According to Gary Balling, executive director of the park district, $150,000 has been budgeted within their their overall capital improvements plan to fully restore the war memorial by the year 2008. That's three times the original cost of the structure.
Walker Restoration Consultants has completed phase one and recently submitted their evaluation. The good news, Balling said, is that the supporting structure is in good condition. The steps and plaque supports, on the other hand, have shifted over the years, and no doubt the skateboarders haven't helped. Fortunately, those portions are independent of the base and can be worked on separately. Phase two, which will occur soon, involves removing one plaque and a portion of the steps for further evaluation.
An ad hoc working committee, which includes the Oak Park Area Arts Council's Camille Wilson-White, Wednesday Journal's Dan Haley and Andrew Johnston, and Steve Kelley, have been overseeing the effort. Kelley, a preservation architect who is volunteering his services, has been especially helpful, Balling said.
None of this, of course, will prevent the VFW and American Legion and any other interested patriots from gathering at the base of the memorial this Saturday at 11 a.m., as they have every year, for a short ceremony of commemoration.
What's in a name?
A story, of course, in each and every case-almost 2,500 stories on the Scoville Park War Memorial alone, many of them now lost to time.
Among the names of those who served in WWI is E.M. Hemingway, best-selling author. Other names sound familiar to those acquainted with local history and architecture: Beachy, Barton, Gilmore, Hatch, Heurtley, Hoppe, Houha, Lindberg, McFeeley, Peaslee, Postlewait, Sears, Tope, Van Bergen, and Winslow.
A few famous names can also be found. Charles G. MacArthur turned into Charles A. MacArthur and co-wrote The Front Page with Ben Hecht, any number of famous movies, and married actress Helen Hayes. But he was living in Oak Park when he entered WWI. His brother, John D. MacArthur, who made a fortune in life insurance and real estate and created the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which gives out the annual "genius" grants, is likewise listed. Robert St. John, who became famous as a war correspondent on NBC Radio during WWII, is there too. As is George Trafton, member of the Football Hall of Fame who helped George Halas start the NFL. Trafton was recently inducted posthumously into the OPRF High School Tradition of Excellence hall of fame, but he's been here for decades.
The names reflect Oak Park's considerable ethnic, if not racial, diversity. There are 19 Johnsons, 16 Smiths, 12 Joneses, 12 Petersons, 11 Andersons (and one Andersen), 10 Millers (and two Millars), 9 Kellys (and one Kelley), 8 Schroeders, 8 Shaws, 7 Wilsons, 7 Nelsons, 6 each of Whites, Rices, Schneiders, Schultzes, Moores, Krafts, and Armstrongs. No less than 48 Mc's served, from McAllister to McSweeney, and 10 O's (O'Brien to O'Neill). There is even a Martinez.
Among those who died, stories can be found in the newspapers of the time. Lt. Frank O. Sturtevant, son of Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Sturtevant of 1012 Wesley, died in action near Verdun. Rev. Hedley H. Cooper, rector of St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, was gassed and died in France on May 26, 1918. Lt. John R. Marchant, son of George T. Marchant of 618 Fair Oaks, died while serving with the 131st Infantry. Lt. George N. Hammond, son of Mr. and Mrs. Elmo H. Hammond of 365 Keystone in River Forest, died of pneumonia at Ft. Sam Houston in Texas.