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Taking a Dip at Rand Park

Rand Park turns 75 this year, and we look back at this downtown recreation center.

Although Des Plaines expanded enormously in the 1920s, its recreational facilities had not. The Forest Preserve began during that decade, and there were a few fields, such as Earle Field (now the site of Central School), Northwestern Park, and the parks straddling the railroad track, but a real need was felt for more spaces.

By 1929, a particular desire was felt for a public pool. Some citizens swam in the Des Plaines River near the bridge and later up north at Dam No. 2; there were pools at the old and new Maine High School, and a pool was built at the Methodist Campground, but these facilities were inadequate for the summertime demands.

The depression held up the possibility of building one any time soon. But it also ultimately made it possible; the Rand Park complex was the biggest result of Works Progress Administration (WPA) funding in Des Plaines. It was completed in two phases.

Phase one was in part considered a flood prevention project. The WPA would fund all the labor and 65 percent of the material, most of which was locally sourced. It included drainage, relocation of the farm buildings on the site to be reused, and the creation of outdoor sports facilities. The farmhouse was moved back for the use of the superintendent and his family, who would carry the brunt of maintaining and operating the park. First to open was the lighted baseball and softball fields in August, 1935, followed by six lighted tennis courts, and two shuffleboard courts in 1936. The tennis courts were designed to do double duty as skating rinks, and the field could also be set up for football. The landscaping included 600 shrubs, 90 trees, and parking for 250 cars. This project employed 127 men through the winter and 47 in the summer. A 82 feet high flagpole from the Century of Progress exposition was added in 1936.

There was more controversy over the second phase of the plan. The pool design changed several times, first with a 160 feet circular "Hunter" pool with lifeguard's stand at center. Next was a design for 210 feet oval. The final design was a 200 feet by 160 feet horseshoe, with depth from 8 inches to 11 feet, surrounded by a beach. It would hold up to 1,500 swimmers. It would be one of the largest in the area. The construction process was not smooth. The first two designs actually were started before the design was complete, and some had to be back filled. Phase two was not completed until 1940. The opening was delayed again and again by cracked concrete slabs in the pool, painting delayed by rain, and improper valves. When it finally opened, it also included flood lights, five diving boards, and eight swim lanes. Originally meant to open in mid-June, it did not open until August 8. It must have been a very anxious summer for the children of Des Plaines.

The other part of the project was a field house with a gymnasium/multi-purpose room, board rooms, kitchens, showers, a rifle range, a filtration plant for the pool, a balcony overlooking the pool, and covered canopies leading to the pool. The Art Deco building was designed by architect William McCaughey, who had helped design such buildings as the Pickwick Theatre, Maine East High School, the 1930 Des Plaines Post Office, and many other major buildings in the surrounding suburbs. This was probably the best Art Deco building in Des Plaines, with extensive glass block windows.

A nurse was on duty to inspect toes for fungus; Adults were charged 25 cents for admission and children 10 cents. Adult swim lasted from 8 p.m.-10 p.m. The fieldhouse would be used for many purposes, from flower shows to political meetings to radio shows to dances to dog shows. A youth center was created there later, and glass-walled additions appeared on the second floor, and a greenhouse was built. The pool served other purposes too - at least once it was stocked with 600 trout for a sports show.

By the 1980s, attendance was down. There were more pools - Iroquois, Chippewa, the YMCA. The addition of two waterslides in 1983 boosted attendance to new heights. However, the pool and fieldhouse were aging. Des Plaines was now a much larger city with many more parks. The park board decided to move most of the functions of the fieldhouse to the new Prairie Lakes Park rather than spend $2 million to rehabilitate it; the pool would be devoted to swimming. Plans developed to replace the pool, too, with a variety of aquatic attractions. The old pool, except the water slides, which were partially covered, was demolished in 1994 and the new Mystic Waters opened in 1996.

Laurie Whitman June 06, 2011 at 11:09 PM
On a day like today, with temps in the 90's Rand Park Pool would be packed! I spent every morning there when I was about 7 years old learning to swim. It was the place to go - we rode our bikes every day and then returned at night too! Loved Rand Park! The story was great, too, Brian. I did not know the history and it is really interesting. Another thing that happened at Rand Park were the Friday Night Dances that were held for the junior high kids from Chippewa, Algonquin and Thacker. Great place, great memories.
Brian Wolf July 04, 2011 at 01:23 PM
Just read that the baseball diamond here was actually built to match the dimensions of Wrigley Field.
Lorraine Swanson (Editor) May 20, 2013 at 05:18 PM
I spent every afternoon of my youth at Rand Park in the 1960s. My brother was a toe-checker for fungus.

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