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Designed by Chance: Chicago’s Other Landscape Architect

By Brian Failing,
Community Services & Education

Movements to create formal parks in cities and towns emerged at the turn of the 20th century. New York’s Central Park was opened during the mid-1800s, and Daniel Burnham called for the creation of city parks in his “1909 Plan For Chicago.” As cities became more developed, the amount of open land and parks decreased, leading to an increased need to preserve land before it was lost to industry. The 20th century also paved the way for a shift in the way that parks should be created. Parks became less formal and were designed to embrace the natural landscape and create a connection to the natural world. Names like Wilhelm Miller, Jens Jensen and Chauncey Stevens Hill become synonymous with a new Prairie style of landscape architecture.

While you may have heard of Jens Jensen, I doubt you have heard of Chance S. Hill. Hill was born and raised in Champaign and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1914 with his Bachelor of Science in floriculture. He later went on to teach at the University of Illinois from 1918 – 1922 before moving to Downers Grove to begin his career as a landscape architect. While it is possible he was commissioned to do work prior to this, we have only been able to find his work after 1922.

During the 1920s – 1940s, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County employed Hill to oversee the landscape designs of nearly a dozen preserves, which included work as a result of the Civilian Conservation Corps camps at Fullersburg Woods and McDowell Grove. Hill was also involved in work at Warrenville Grove, Churchill Woods, West DuPage Woods, Herrick Lake and York Woods forest preserves and Pioneer Park, Burlington Park and Rocky Glen.

When examining the landscape plans completed for Fullersburg Woods and McDowell Grove, Prairie-style principles are evident. These plans were meant to evoke the Prairie spirit and follow many of the principles that appear in Wilhelm Miller’s “The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening.”  

The preliminary plan for McDowell Grove featured islands that would be constructed by extensive dredging of the West Branch of the DuPage River to create new river channels and a large lagoon. The CCC installed a dam to provide sufficient water for the lagoon to the west of the islands. The addition of smaller dams created picturesque views of natural beauty. Here, the Prairie spirit was evoked by separating the natural world — the forest preserve — from society. McDowell’s parking lot, for example, was located outside the preserve, requiring visitors to park their cars and walk into the preserve to use the picnic shelter, build a campfire or see the scenery.

When the CCC arrived at Fullersburg in December 1933, they made plans to rebuild a dam near the Old Mill (today’s Graue Mill), restore the mill and make improvements to the site. The camp’s “Fullersburg Beacon” March 1936 issue stated that Fullersburg Woods was the “largest recreation area where the public will be able to enjoy boating and skating. These facilities together with the remarkable plant life and other natural charms of the preserve will combine to make it one of the most popular and valuable recreation units in the metropolitan area.”1  

When visiting these sites today visitors will find much of the present landscape design still follows these plans. Although some trails, buildings and bridges have come and gone, many other features remain. Remnants of fireplaces in an abandoned picnic grove and a picnic shelter still remain at McDowell Woods. And at Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center — a former boathouse — Hill’s name appears with other early District officials on a plaque mounted to the building.

Beyond his work with the District, Hill was fairly active in the field of landscape architecture. Hill was appointed a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1941. He worked as the supervising landscape architect for the state of Illinois under C. Herrick Hammond and completed a variety of projects in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. He also designed grounds for public schools and private and public Illinois universities, developed public parks in Western Springs and West Chicago and planned estate designs for prominent individuals.

Although theories of forest preserve design have changed over the years, the Prairie-style influence behind Hill and his contemporaries can still be seen in many DuPage preserves. While Jensen may remain the most recognized landscape architect of the Prairie style, Hill deserves some of the spotlight for his active career during the Great Depression when many were out of work. His work is still enjoyed by visitors who likely never pause to think of who designed their parks, campuses and other public spaces in DuPage County and surrounding region.

  1. “National Park Project,” Fullersburg Beacon, March 1936, p. 3.  
Chance Hill as a student at the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1913. Image courtesy of Jane Oddou, Hill’s granddaughter.
McDowell Grove Forest Preserve plan 
Hill's name not only appears on a Fullersburg Woods' plaque but also on those at the McDowell Grove picnic shelter and Churchill Woods’ McKee structure. 
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