The Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society collects, preserves and shares the story of the diverse community of Chicago’s far north side. Established by local residents who believed their part of Chicago was a place with much to celebrate, the Society today serves the community through its publications, neighborhood tours, Living History programs and other educational and outreach efforts. The not-for-profit organization is chartered by the State of Illinois to operate exclusively for charitable, educational, religious, or scientific purposes within the meaning of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended.
Founders of the organization began meeting informally in 1973 at the Rogers Park Library, 6907 N. Clark Street, an especially fitting site since the street has been a hub of social and economic activity in the community since its post-Civil War development. As the informal group grew, a permanent neighborhood historical society was formally established on July 28, 1975.
A few months later, on March 17, 1976, the Rogers Park Historical Society was granted an official charter from the State of Illinois. For several years, the new organization served the area of Chicago’s far north side usually identified as “Rogers Park,” sometimes differentiated as “East Rogers Park” and “West Rogers Park.” In actuality, this area encompassed the Chicago Community Areas designated by the city as Rogers Park and West Ridge, and on April 27, 1994, the organization officially changed its name to the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society to recognize its service to both communities.
During the course of its history, the society has offered educational programs relating to the community, city, state, and nation. Since 1985, an annual house tour has highlighted the unique architecture of local residences and the stories of those who occupied its neighborhoods over the years.
For more than a decade, the society operated out of the homes of its founders, but in 1991, the group began a search for office space. While attending an event for S.P.A.C.E. (A Special Place for Arts, the Community, and Education), Executive Director Mary Jo Doyle and Board Member John Arcand were offered desk space to plan and organize events planned in conjunction with the Centennial of the annexation of Rogers Park and West Ridge to the city of Chicago in 1893. On October 1, 1991, the group moved into the Art Deco building at 6424 N. Western Avenue designed by William C. Presto, an associate of Louis Sullivan, who also designed the building on the southeast corner of Devon and Western Avenues.
In April 1993, Rogers Park and West Ridge celebrated the 100th Anniversary of annexation to the City of Chicago. The year-long Centennial celebration began in April 1992, with a parade and a community gathering named “Hands Across Ridge.” The success of the Centennial programs helped the society realize the dream of opening the Museum and Educational Research Center at 6424 N. Western Avenue in April, 1994. A major fundraising effort made it possible to purchase the building in October 1995.
In 1986, the Society began publishing a regular newsletter, initially called the RPHS Newsletter and renamed The Historian in the Winter 1994-1995 issue. In 1997, The Historian received the Award of Merit for publications from the Illinois Association of Museums. The victim of rising costs and changing technologies, the last printed issue of The Historian was published in Winter, 2013. Subsequently, it was published as an online magazine until the passing of its long-time editor, Hank Morris, in late 2016. One additional issue was published in 2017, after which news updates, reports on Society activities and articles on neighborhood history have been incorporated into the Society’s website, which was first launched in 2001.
In 2000, the Society celebrated its 25th Anniversary with publication of an award-winning historical book, Chicago’s Far North Side: An Illustrated History of Rogers Park and West Ridge. This and a second book, Neighborhoods Within Neighborhoods: Twentieth Century Life on Chicago’s Far North Side, published in March 2002, remain popular publications, documenting the history of the community to the end of the 20th Century.
The society sold its long-time residence at 6424 N. Western on September 30, 2003. In a search for its new home, the group moved into an interim site at 7344 N. Western Avenue (in July 2004) and then made another move to 1447 W. Morse Avenue on December 12, 2010, while considering the possibility of acquiring the abandoned firehouse on Greenleaf Avenue just east of Clark Street as a permanent museum. Once the firehouse option was determined to be unfeasible, RPWRHS moved to permanent space at 7363 N. Greenview Avenue in August 2015, and refocused its efforts away from creation of a museum to the development of expanded educational programs and community outreach.
In 2016, an occasional, informal lecture series was renamed The Living History Speaker Program, providing free, open-to-all educational events that are held approximately bi-monthly, the location rotating across the three public library branches in Rogers Park and West Ridge spiced with an occasional visit to another neighborhood location. In 2014, the Society forged a partnership with graduate students in the Public History program at Loyola University, offering opportunities for students to develop and execute public history programs in the “real world” along with volunteers from the community. In 2017, this partnership resulted in the publication of the Society’s community cookbook, The World in One Neighborhood: The Varied Cuisines of Chicago’s Far North Side, as well as an expanded schedule of historic neighborhood tours and successful fundraising events. In 2018, the society will execute another student-proposed program, its first-ever Open Houses of Worship Weekend.
For more about the importance of history and history education, check out the History Relevance Campaign.