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Researchers Reveal Rogers Park's Long-Forgotten Past as Greenhouse Hub

By Benjamin Woodard | November 6, 2013 11:17am
 Rogers Park once was home to large greenhouse operations.
Forgotten Chicago
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WEST ROGERS PARK — Before the rise of four-plus-one apartment buildings, two flats and bungalows, Rogers Park was a hub for Chicago's long-forgotten greenhouse industry, researchers said Tuesday.

"Rogers Park and West Ridge really developed early on as area of greenhouse agricultural," said Jacob Kaplan, a researcher for the historical organization Forgotten Chicago, who dug up old photos and maps of the neighborhood dating back to the 1800s.

Kaplan presented his findings on the overlooked segment of Chicago history to a packed room Tuesday night at the Northtown Library on California Avenue.

"Growing local nowadays is a big thing, but back then in the early 20th century, before transportation had evolved to what it is nowadays, it was a natural thing to grow local," said Kaplan. "These greenhouses existed right outside of the built up area of Chicago, making stuff presumably for restaurants and farm stands and grocery stores in the city."

Kaplan cycled through photo after photo of families posing in their Rogers Park greenhouses.

The Nepper family owned more than a dozen of them at Wolcott and Birchwood avenues. Old maps from the early 20th century maintained by fire insurance companies show their exact location.

In one photo, eight members of the Nepper family stand inside a greenhouse, surrounded by tall plants. The family's home shown in another photo is still standing to this day in the 7400 block of North Wolcott Avenue.

Other families — including the Thillens, the Welters, the Wiltgens — also had growing operations that can been seen in the old photographs collected by the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society.

Another mark of the neighborhood's rural past can be found in a photo of Schaul's Live Poultry Farm.

The business operated in the early 20th century and the house attached to the chicken coops can still be found at Pratt Boulevard and California Avenue — but without the coops.

The presentation wowed attendees.

"I have lived here for 30 years and I never knew there was so much involvement [in Rogers Park] with the greenhouses," said 64-year-old Carleen Lorys.

But the neighborhood industry that blossomed in the early 1900s didn't last long after residential development exploded at the end of World War II, Kaplan said.

"In what was a very short period of time, these would be demolished and replaced with residential" buildings, he said.

Greenhouses west of Ridge Boulevard, however, did last longer — in at least one case, into the 1980s.

Swanson The Florist's series of greenhouses were located on Western Avenue near Chase Avenue. The business has since been demolished for a shopping center, Kaplan said.

Kaplan also showed a 1938 aerial photo of the 18-hole Edgewater Golf Club, where Warren Park and its nine-hole course are today. The old club spurred extensive development in the area, Kaplan said, such as the mansions on the north side of Pratt across from the park.

From the same year, the grand Granada Theatre was shown in a photograph taken at Devon Avenue and North Broadway. Developers demolished the building in the late '80s and early '90s to make way for a retail and residential high-rise now owned by Loyola University.

Kaplan said the sudden explosion of greenhouses — and their sudden demise — proved one fact of the neighborhood's history: "Rogers Park and West Ridge [quickly] turned from rural to suburban to urban."