From its beginnings, Oak Park’s roots have been intricately intertwined with those of the city of Chicago. So too were the people of both communities connected to each other in the latter half of the 19th century. The growth of Oak Park, Illinois directly reflected that of Chicago. They shared a common history.
The founders of both towns were ambitious, whether working class immigrants, middle class farmers, urban dwellers escaping from the congestion of the eastern cities, or the already wealthy, who saw Chicago as a new opportunity to exploit, and become wealthier still. Chicago grew steadily from the 1840’s through the 1870’s. Then in 1871, the sparks of the Great Chicago Fire seemed to ignite an even greater flurry of economic and industrial growth. The devastation of the fire created a blank slate, and expanding economic opportunities beckoned.
There was a great need for new buildings to support this rapid new growth and many talented architects were there, ready to fill this need. They had names like Jenney, Burnham, Root, Adler and of course Sullivan. They were the leaders of what came to be known as the “Chicago School” of architecture.
This first group spawned a second generation of builders which became known as the “Second Chicago School” or “Prairie School” of architecture and included in their leadership; Wright, Spencer, Purcell, Elmslie, Schmidt, Garden, Perkins, Griffin, Mahony, and Maher. This group in turn established the direction of 20th century architecture and influenced a next generation to carry on the tradition now established, and to continue its evolution. This next generation included John S. Van Bergen.
Permelia Van Bergen was born in 1823 in Unadilla, New York. She and her husband Frederick S. Van Bergen celebrated the births of their daughter, Mary in 1847 and their son, William F. Van Bergen on August 7, 1849. (William was always called Fred throughout his life, but was known formally as W.F. Van Bergen). Living in Troy, New York, Frederick worked for the Chicago, St. Paul & Fond Du Lac Railroad, and then for the Chicago and NorthWestern Railroad from its opening in 1859. The family then moved to Madison, Wisconsin. Little else is known about John Van Bergen’s paternal grandparents. William grew up and was educated in Madison. He was a close childhood friend of John Muir who later became a famous explorer, naturalist and writer.