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Forest preserve district unveils big plans for Oak Forest site

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey has proposed cemetery for indigent burials be developed Oak Forest Hospital property. The five-acre site

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey has proposed a cemetery for indigent burials be developed on Oak Forest Hospital property. The five-acre site would be adjacent to a cemetery where nearly 91,000 bodies were buried between 1911 and 1971. | Larry Ruehl~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 16, 2012 6:18AM



Bike paths, nods to history, a visitors center and more all could be part of a makeover of the land that once was part of the Oak Forest Hospital campus.

The Cook County Forest Preserve District on Tuesday unveiled its ambitious plan for the 176-acre Oak Forest Heritage Preserve, just east of the Oak Forest Medical Center that replaced the hospital at the southeast corner of 159th Street and Cicero Avenue.

The plan is to transform the historically and ecologically rich property into a publicly accessible and educational site.

“There is a fascinating history here. It was an interesting planning challenge to make it all work together,” forest preserve district general Supt. Arnold Randall said.

It will be a site for passive recreation — such as walking, biking and jogging — that is respectful of the old paupers cemetery and the Native American site, officials said. Both are registered with the Illinois State Museum. During an archaeological survey of the site last year, more than 400 prehistoric artifacts were recovered, reaffirming it as a unique and valuable archaeological site, according to the forest preserve district.

Randall plans to open the site to the public next month, where an existing roadway can be used for a walking trail.

Next year, a new trail will be developed, with spurs leading to culturally significant sites and highlighting natural areas, said Chris Slattery, director of planning and development for the forest preserve district.

Over the long term, there will be more bells and whistles that will require fundraising, Slattery said.

The plan will be developed over several years, and will include a system of trails that loops through the forest preserve site and around the medical center site. The paths will connect to two adjacent forest preserves (Midlothian Meadows and St. Mihiel Reservation), to Fieldcrest Park and Fieldcrest Elementary School, and to the Cicero Avenue sidewalks, which will be widened.

The plan also envisions:

A pedestrian and wildlife crossing over 159th Street at the northeast side of the site.

Reusing an existing building for a visitors center/museum.

Re-establishing native plants in a prairie, woodland, oak savanna and wetland.

Interpretation of the historic poor farm and 17th century Native American dwellings.

Preservation and memorialization of the historic cemetery.

Restoration of the Pogie Lake shoreline.

Additionally, a new traffic signal is suggested for the 163rd Street and Cicero Avenue intersection.

Phase One would continue next spring with landscape restoration, pedestrian paths and other stops.

“There are so many different facets to this. It’s a pretty unique site for us,” Randall said.

The forest preserve district said the initial phase, estimated to cost between $2.5 million and $3.9 million, would be funded from existing capital funds.

The 176.3-acre Oak Forest Heritage Preserve site was acquired by the forest preserve district from Cook County in 2010 — 100 years after the county opened the Cook County Work Farm/Oak Forest Infirmary, a poor farm and home for the county’s indigent population. It later became Oak Forest Hospital and today is the Oak Forest Health Center.

In addition to the poor farm, the infirmary property also served as a tuberculosis treatment center and as a burial site for the county’s indigent from 1911 to 1971.



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