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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, February 29

Gapers Block

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Q: What's the history of Palmer Square? How did it come into being?

Still lined by late 19th century homes, Palmer Square retains some of the character of Victorian Chicago, which is just the way many locals like it.

Of the 28 miles that made up Chicago's historic boulevard system, the area around Logan Square, including Palmer Square, may be one of the best preserved sections. Community leaders and preservationists agree, and, in 1985, they successfully campaigned to have the Logan Square Boulevards Historic District added to the National Register of Historic Places.

But the origins of Palmer Square and the boulevard system can be traced back to the very beginnings of the city.

John Steven Wright, one of Chicago's early settlers, is credited with first proposing the idea of creating a system of interconnected parks and boulevards in the city. He is known as "Chicago's greatest booster" because he tirelessly promoted the growth and development of the city from the time he arrived in 1832. Even after the Great Chicago Fire, as he stood amidst the smoldering ruins on Wabash Avenue, Wright famously predicted, "Chicago will have more men, more money, more business within five years than she would have without the fire."

Throughout the 1840s and '50s, Chicago real estate developers dotted their subdivisions with small parks, donating or selling the parkland to the city. They knew the parks would make the communities more attractive to buyers and increase the value of their investment. But in 1849 John Wright outlined a bold plan for a "magnificent chain of parks and parkways" that would encircle the city.

Wright didn't see his plan come to fruition until 20 years later when, in 1869, the Illinois state legislature created three Chicago park districts for the purpose of developing a "ribbon of parks and pleasure drives" through Chicago.

Frederick Law Olmstead, the same man who planned New York's Central park, was commissioned by Chicago's south park district in 1870 to design Washington Park, Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance. Architect Daniel Burnham joined Olmstead to plan the area for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

Meanwhile, William Le Baron Jenney, the "father of the skyscraper," was enlisted by the west park district to plan Humboldt, Garfield and Douglas parks. Jenney was also entrusted with planning the connecting boulevards, including both Logan and Palmer squares.

Palmer Square was named for another Chicago luminary, Potter Palmer. Like John Wright, Palmer was a successful businessman and real estate investor concerned with the development and beautification of the city. For example, Palmer was responsible for reclaiming the acres of swampland north of the city's business district, which was developed into the Lake Shore Drive area.

Today Palmer Square advocates are sounding off about the city's plan to redesign the square, adding a playground, dog-run, jogging trails and other landscaping. Logan Square community leaders are concerned the changes would destroy the square's historic character. Although the outcome is still undetermined, it is clear Chicago's green spaces are still a high priority, even for modern-day city boosters.


Briggs, Jonathan E. "Keep tot lot off square, city urged." Chicago Tribune. 14 December 2004, 1.

Briggs, Jonathan E. "Palmer Square grant gets a cold reception." Chicago Tribune. 27 March 2005, 3.

Busk, Celeste. "A landmark district in the making: leaders seek recognition of Logan Square." Chicago Sun-Times. 18 August 1985, 9.

Mayer, Harold M. and Richard C. Wade. Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.


Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. This month we are reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. We will be meeting to discuss the book on Monday, May 9, at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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