NORTH PARK — North Park Village, former home to a tuberculosis sanitarium, is kicking off a year of centennial celebrations this weekend, having transformed over the course of its history from a much-loathed to a much-loved institution.
But the nearly 160-acre North Side campus, which now includes a popular nature preserve, wouldn't exist at all if neighbors had had their way 100 years ago.
At the turn of the previous century, tuberculosis — known as "the great white plague" — was one of the leading causes of death in the United States. In 1909, voters in Chicago overwhelmingly approved a tax to establish the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium by a vote of 167,230 to 39,410. But where to put the facility proved a far more divisive issue.
The eight-month struggle to find a home for the sanitarium is detailed in a 98-page document available in its entirety online: "City of Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium: Its History and Provisions," by Dr. Theodore Sachs, who was president of the board of directors of the sanitarium.
After "every section of the city was thoroughly canvassed," an 85-acre tract of land on the North Side was very nearly purchased on behalf of the sanitarium, but eleventh-hour objections from neighboring property owners scuttled that sale.
"It was soon apparent that the attitude toward the proposed institution was one of frantic fear based on misconception," Sachs wrote.
Representatives from the opposition were so determined to keep the sanitarium out of their backyard that they offered to help find another site for the insitution within a month's time.
This group quickly identified 160 acres of farmland bounded by Peterson, Bryn Mawr, Central and Crawford (now Pulaski) avenues, where North Park Village would come to stand.
Perhaps not surprisingly, neighbors of this parcel were just as hostile to the sanitarium as the first bunch and expressed their resistance at public hearings held in 1911.
"In brief, the weight of the argument centered again around the possibility of spread of infection from the sanitarium to surrounding territory and the probable decline in land values around the institution," Sachs wrote.
He summed up the proceedings as such: "The discussion was lengthy and spirited."
In the end, proponents of the sanitarium carried the day.
A historical document shows the original layout of Chicago's Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, now North Park Village. Credit: Archive.org
At its peak, MTS had beds for nearly 1,000 patients, separated by age and gender and housed in "cottages." The property also included walking paths, gardens for growing food and recreation areas for the healthier inmates.
The sanitarium closed in the 1970s, at which point new treatments and vaccines had all but eradicated tuberculosis in the U.S.
In the 1980s, developers presented plans to raze the sanitarium, proposing to build condos and a shopping mall a la the Brickyard in the footprint of the MTS.
In an interesting plot twist, neighbors now struggled to preserve the very village their predecessors had fought to prevent.
"The residents worried that traffic from the mall would undercut the value of their property, and also that their neighborhood would lose a treasured landmark," Ben Joravsky wrote in a 1989 article for the Chicago Reader.
While the original battle over the sanitarium's site lasted eight months, the preservation fight spanned the administrations of mayors Richard J. Daley, Jane Byrne, Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer.
In the intervening years, senior housing, Peterson Park and a school for disabled students were built on the Village campus.
Finally, in 1989, preservationists and the city agreed to a contract that would protect approximately 100 acres of open land for 75 years.
"This was an instance when the city decided it was more important to preserve our assets than to sell them off. The big payoff will be for future generations," said Ramon Muniz, a then-city official who pushed for the agreement.
Learn more about North Park Village's past and future at Saturday's centennial kick-off celebration. The event will feature a series of brief lectures and tours of the grounds, 1-5 p.m., North Park Village, H Building Community Room, 5801 N. Pulaski Rd.
Admission is free but registration is required by calling 312-744-5472.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: