Historic Riverside: A Brief History

By Riverside Chamber of Commerce

The area that is now Riverside holds a unique place in our country’s history. Its proximity to the Chicago Portage, which provided a connection between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, made the area a focal point for Native American settlements and an active trading route. The Portage was discovered by Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet in 1673, and was a defining factor in the founding and development of Chicago and westward expansion.

The Forbes family came to Riverside (then called Aux Plaines) and built the first home west of Chicago in 1836. There was minimal development during the mid-1800s, but that changed when the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad built a rail line through the area in 1863. Then, in 1869, a group of visionary businessmen formed the Riverside Improvement Company and set out to develop “a perfect village in a perfect setting.”

Riverside Arcade Building riversideillinois

To achieve this lofty goal, the RIC commissioned landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted (the “father of landscape architecture”) and Calvert Vaux, to design one of the first planned suburban communities in the United States. Olmsted and Vaux were already well-known for their design of New York City’s Central Park, and their “General Plan for Riverside” quickly became a landmark in urban design and landscape architecture.

Olmsted and Vaux strove to create a pastoral atmosphere in an urban environment, combining the pleasures of rural life with conveniences such as community-provided gas, water services, and well-maintained streets. Instead of using a typical grid pattern for Riverside’s streets, Olmsted and Vaux designed curvilinear streets inspired by the contours of the land and the Des Plaines River, emphasizing the community’s connection to nature.

Des Plaines River riversideillinois

The Des Plaines River — inspiration for the town's winding curves

To accent the importance of the public landscape as a civic necessity, Olmsted and Vaux’s plan included a central village square and a grand park system founded on several large parks with over forty smaller triangular parks located at intersections throughout the town to provide additional green space. In all, almost one-half of the community was set aside as public land.

By 1871, Riverside had a number of large homes, a water tower, the country’s first multi-shop arcade building, a church, a train depot, and a grand hotel. Then, in 1871, disaster struck with the Chicago Fire. The ensuing financial panic led to the demise of the Riverside Improvement Company in 1873, but fortunately Olmsted and Vaux’s plan was basically complete. Local residents came together to sustain Olmsted and Vaux’s vision, officially incorporating the Village of Riverside in 1875.

Riverside Library

True to its founding ideals, Riverside attracted increasing numbers of people from the bustle of Chicago to a serene oasis easily accessible by train a scant eleven miles west of the city. Over time, this growth brought the country’s preeminent architects to contribute to the exceptional diversity of Riverside’s architecture, including Olmsted and Vaux, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Le Baron Jenney, Charles Frederick Whittlesey, Daniel Burnham, Joseph Lyman Silsbee, R. Harold Zook, Frederick Clarke Withers, Louis Sullivan, and William Eugene Drummond. Much of their work remains today.

Since its early beginnings, Riverside has remained a beautiful “Village in the Forest.” It still retains many elements of Olmsted and Vaux’s original plan, including expansive public parks, gas-lit lanterns, and curvilinear streets. In 1970, this legacy was formally recognized when the Riverside Landscape Architecture District was designated a National Historic Landmark.

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