But tucked within this aging public building is a priceless art collection.
The Vanderpoel Art Collection includes some 600 works of art, made up of paintings, sketches and sculptures. The modest gallery on the second floor of the field house at 1817 W. 96th St. displays 186 of its most notable pieces, according to Sid Hamper, 83, president of the John H. Vanderpoel Art Association.
Howard Ludwig discusses the Beverly neighborhood's hidden treasure:
His wife, Grace Hamper, is the curator of the collection that dates to 1914. It was founded three years after the death of Vanderpoel, a Beverly resident and celebrated instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The bulk of the artwork consists of oil paintings — about 400 pieces. The little-known art collection in Ridge Park has even been described as one of the largest collections of American impressionism in the Midwest.
Vanderpoel was born in Haarlemmermeer, Holland, on Nov. 15, 1857. His family immigrated in 1868 and settled in Chicago. He showed an early adeptness at drawing, which eventually led to a career in art instruction.
"Georgia O'Keefe in her biography stated that Vanderpoel was, 'One of the few real teachers I have known,'" Hamper said.
Just before his death, Vanderpoel moved to St. Louis, where he became friends with John A. Campbell. While there, he published "The Human Figure," a book that is still used by art students today. Vanderpoel died in Campbell's arms of a heart attack on May 1, 1911.
Shortly thereafter, friends and neighbors in Beverly wanted to celebrate the influential art teacher known as "Papa" to the children living on his block. A street was named for Vanderpoel along with the elementary school at 95th Street and Vanderpoel Avenue. Both still bear his name.
Campbell then reached out to Vanderpoel's former students in an effort to set up a memorial. Instead of sending money, Vanderpoel's pupils sent art. From 1914 to 1950, Campbell collected more than 500 pieces.
Campbell reached out to artists everywhere, even those unfamiliar with Vanderpoel. When asking for donations, Campbell would tell artists their gifts were "in the effort to memorialize artists everywhere," according to a decades-old catalog of the gallery.
"Virtually everything has been donated. There are very few pieces that were paid for," Hamper said.
The artwork was initially kept in John H. Vanderpoel Elementary School, but the collection quickly outgrew the school's hallways. The Vanderpoel Art Association then began working with the park district. As the Ridge Park field house was expanded — which included enclosing the swimming pool — an art gallery was also built, Hamper said.
The Vanderpoel Art Collection was brought to Ridge Park in 1930. In the decades that followed, the association responsible for the collection held regular shows at the park district facility. Members of the Vanderpoel Art Association included many of Beverly's elite, such as the Walgreen family and others, Hamper said.
To further accommodate the collection, the Vanderpoel Art Association partnered with Morgan Park Academy from 1969 to 2003. This partnership laid the groundwork for the Beverly Arts Center. When the arts center built its own building in 2002, the Vanderpoel collection returned exclusively to Ridge Park.
The Vanderpoel Art Collection is looked at as one of the park district's cultural centers, much like the Museum of Science and Industry or the Field Museum. The paintings and sculptures occupy the only room in Ridge Park with air conditioning, so the gallery is also used as a cooling center for summer camps and other activities.
"We've had an excellent relationship with the park district, and I've done everything I can to maintain that," Hamper said.
Hamper restores about seven pictures each year at a cost of about $1,000 each. He's also working to move many of the unframed pieces to acid-free books to better preserve them. While the association still offers memberships, most of the money to restore the paintings comes from Hamper's own pocket.
A lifelong Beverly resident, Hamper remembers occasionally wandering into the Vanderpoel Gallery with a friend in high school.
"Old man Campbell, he would throw us out," Hamper recalled.
Now he's often the only one in the museum, which has visiting hours from 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturdays. Hamper has a story for just about every piece of art on display, and he's adamant about maintaining the collection for future generations.
"Nothing will ever go for sale," he said.