Imagine stepping back into a 1950s home, complete with Formica countertops, chrome kitchen chairs, a black rotary telephone and a wringer-style washing machine. Welcome to the 1950s Park Forest House Museum in Park Forest, Ill.
The museum began as a joint project of the Park Forest 50th anniversary committee, the historical society, League of Women Voters and Thorn Creek Townhouses, and opened in 1998 in one of the original townhouses in Park Forest. After nine years it moved to its current location at 141 Forest Blvd.
Back in 1946, Carroll Sweet Sr., Nathan Manilow and Philip M. Kluznick formed American Community Builders and worked with the Federal Housing Administration to develop multi-family dwellings in Park Forest. A tough winter in 1947 delayed the project so that tenants couldn’t move in until August of 1948.
In November of that year, the 600-strong tenants of the new development accepted the builder’s offer to incorporate and form a village government, resulting in Park Forest.
Park Forest was the first fully-planned, post-World War II suburb in the country, said Jane Nicoll, 1950s Park Forest Museum director and collection curator.
“Levittown (on Long Island, New York) preceded us, but they were subdivisions,” she said. “We were planned with schools, churches and shopping centers and laid out that way.”
Nicoll said that 3,010 rental units began building in 1947 and all of them had been built within a year. Preference on rentals was given to veterans returning from the Second World War, she noted.
“Park Forest is referred to as ‘America’s original GI town,’” Nicoll added.
Nicoll pointed out that the units in Park Forest were built so sturdily that none of them have ever been torn down.
“Several areas had been divided off into cooperatives and they’re still in existence and successful,” she said. “They’ve all been upgraded, with new siding, central air conditioning and more modern windows. But there are many other units that haven’t been modified at all.”
Nicoll said the town’s highest population was 35,000, and as of the 2000 census, Park Forest has 24,000 residents.
She said the museum was located in one of the untouched rental units, staying there rent free for the first nine years, compliments of Thorn Creek Townhomes.
“The unit has two rooms and a bath upstairs and three rooms downstairs, including a combined living and dining room, and kitchen,” Nicoll said. “The rooms are quite spacious and the unit has a full basement. There are no dormers, but it has cottage-style roofing.”
Nicoll pointed out that the units mostly are made up of two- and four-unit buildings, although there are some eight-unit buildings in the development.
“They varied the building material used on the facades and front doors to give units their own identity,” she said. “Some had brick, others wood siding and others Masonite board.”
The development also was planned in a curvilinear pattern with green spaces around the front doors.
The museum is laid out with 1947-era furnishings. Because there was a school in one of the eight-unit buildings, the museum devotes one room to a classroom, mimicking the Forest Boulevard School.
The museum’s kitchen is fully stocked with the small appliances and types of kitchen gadgets one might find in a late-1940s house. There’s the period glassware, spice boxes, canisters, a red enamel kitchen table, and a stepstool. In the dining room there’s a chrome and Formica dining room table with blonde wood chairs, and in the living room, Formica end tables, a bookcase and a Heywood Wakefield desk and chair.
Upstairs, there’s a limed oak bedroom set, all matching – a vanity, chest, bed frame and bedside table – with large geometric pulls on the drawers. There’s also a bassinette with an aluminum top and beads on a bar for the baby to play with, and an Irish lace cover that flows to the floor.
Jewelry, baby clothes, some formal dresses, men’s clothing and shoes, women’s everyday clothing and suitcases are displayed strategically throughout the rooms.
“We decorate the museum in the period each year for Christmas and for a 1950s Valentine’s Day party in the classroom,” Nicoll said. “We also have Easter cutouts for the classroom with period-style baskets.”
The museum is open Saturdays from 1-3 p.m., as well as by appointment for schools and other groups. Go to www.parkforesthistory.org for driving directions or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. The museum requests a donation of $5 for adults, with children under 12 free with a paying adult.