PARK FOREST PLAZA
Forest and Lakewood Boulevards
Village of Park Forest, Illinois

As Long Island, New York's Levittown development was being built, a similar, post-war planned community was coming into its own on 2,400 acres south of Chicago. The Park Forest project had been formally announced October 28, 1946. Its first residents moved in in August 1948. The burgeoning suburb  was incorporated, as the Village of Park Forest, February 1, 1949.  

Developed by Philip Klutznick, Nathan Manilow and Carroll F. Sweet (under the auspices of their American Community Builders company), Park Forest would feature a large, courtyard-type shopping center as its de facto downtown.

PARK FOREST PLAZA, designed by Richard M. Bennett of the Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett firm, occupied 54 acres, located 36 miles southwest of The Loop. The complex consisted of a main retail level with basements beneath all buildings.

The first operational store, Park Forest Liquors, opened December 15, 1949. By early 1950, the liquor store had been joined by an S.S. Kresge 5 & 10 and Jewel supermarket. The H. & E. Balaban Corporation Holiday Theatre showed its first feature October 28, 1950.

The shopping center, a harbinger of things to come in post-war America, received a great deal of media attention in its early days. Its retail buildings were situated around a wide, landscaped courtyard, with a distinctive clock tower as its focal point.

Promotional literature at the time described the PLAZA in the following manner; "All shops surround a park area and are connected by permanent canopies for the protection of shoppers against the elements in every season. (There are) big super-marts, smart gift shops, a modern drug store...and spacious free parking area." 

Anchor department stores were eventually added. A 1-level (62,500 square foot) Goldblatt Brothers opened October 7, 1953. This was followed by a 2-level (72,000 square foot) Marshall Field's, dedicated March 28, 1955. A 3-level (200,000 square foot) Sears opened, as the center's third anchor, August 8, 1963.

PARK FOREST PLAZA served as the preeminent south side shopping center until 1973, when LINCOLN MALL {2.7 miles northwest, in Matteson} opened for business. A bit of commercial competition had also been given by DIXIE SQUARE MALL (1966) {8.9 miles north, in Harvey} and RIVER OAKS CENTER (1966) {9.9 miles northeast, in Calumet City}. The completion of ORLAND SQUARE MALL (1976) {12.5 miles northwest, in Orland Park} brought an additional retail rival.

The first plan to reinvigorate the struggling shopopolis was proposed in 1985. It was given a facelift in 1987, with its name officially changed to CENTRE OF PARK FOREST. However, this revitalization was unsuccessful. Another proposal to reinvent it as a more modern, regional shopping center surfaced in 1993. This initiative also failed.

In 1995, The Village Of Park Forest purchased the site and paid its delinquent back taxes. Around this time, the Sears anchor store closed, with the shuttering of Marshall Field's taking place March 29, 1997.

A new plan, put forward by Park Forest, did away with any ideas about attempting to redevelop the center as a regional-class shopping venue. Due to its distance from any expressway or major highway, it was thought that any successful redevelopment scenario would have to take into consideration that the complex could now serve only as a smaller-scale, community-type shopping center.

So, it came to pass that PARK FOREST PLAZA was reconceived as the traditional (Main Street-based) downtown that the post-war, planned community never had. Work got underway in 1997. The Sears and Goldblatt's buildings were the first to go.

Some additional retail structures were razed and a center city street grid was superimposed on the property. The redevelopment project included creating a "village green" entertainment area and renovating the old Bramson's store into a Village Hall.

PARK FOREST DOWNTOWN was unveiled in the early 2000s. The 312,000 square foot city center included the Park Forest Theatre (a 5-screen retrofit of the old Holiday), the Illinois Theatre Center (a live performance venue, opened in 1999) and newly-built Walgreen Drug. The Marshall Field's building languished for several years. Its demolition commenced in November 2010.

The movie house was eventually reconfigured with 2 screens, 3 screens and -then- 5 screens. After several operators, closings, re-openings and name changes, the venue was permanently shuttered in 2013.

Sources:

Park Forest Historical Society / Jane Nicoll Archivist
Park Forest Public Library
preservenet.cornell.edu/publications/Longstreth Branch Store.doc
www.cinematreasures.org
www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org
The Chicago Tribune
"Park Forest, Illinois: Building A Legacy, Creating A New Downtown" / Urban Land Institute, Chicago / October, 2003
www.villageofparkforest.net