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Brookfield's elevated views

Ever wonder what Brookfield looks like from a few stories up? Chris Stach takes the time to find out.

May 31st, 2005 10:00 PM

Haven't you ever wondered what it would be like to be up in the air, 20, 30, 40 feet, and get a bird's eye view of the world around you? To see the tops of trees, the roofs of buildings, the layout of roads, the people looking like ants walking, running, driving? You don't have to be up in a plane to do this. Besides, a plane is always moving, so it's not as if you could just hover a while and look in a 360 degree circle.

So what if you could stay in one place, high up, and you could photograph what you saw, keeping a memory of that unique experience for ever after? Some Brookfield people have done that.

The first "aerial" photos of the village were taken back in its Grossdale days, in June 1895. Of the five views taken at that time, four are still known to exist. They form an invaluable set of images that graphically show the village when it was only 6 years old. They were the work of some adventurous photographer, made from the roof of the McDermott Hotel property, at 8907 Burlington Blvd.

Men known to be photographers living here during the 1890s were Emil T. Behrens of 3709 Forest Ave., Thomas P. White of Madison Avenue and Joseph L. Brouse. Brouse produced stereopticon views of Brookfield in 1901, offering them for sale at $2 per dozen, with any image able to be turned into a magic lantern slide at 40 cents each, a steep sum for the time.

At first glance, any one of these men could have produced the 1895 aerial views, but credit for them probably goes to Behrens, who seems to have been more experimental and would not have hesitated to climb a telephone pole to get a good shot.

Yet, during the 1890s there were other, equally good vantage points from where such elevated views could be taken, but apparently, none ever were. It's something of a mystery.

The open bell tower of the S. E. Gross School was magnificently high, but no images of the village have ever turned up that were taken from that lofty point. Why not? True, the tower faced south, into the noontime sun, but early morning and evening shots of the east and west of the village should've been possible to take. And what about on cloudy days?

Several residents' houses had attic windows that faced in every direction of the compass. Was there no one who thought to point an early Brownie camera outside and snap a photo of the way the local world looked at that moment in time? Or did some people do that, but then lose track of the photos and negatives as the years passed by? What a loss for history, both personal and public.

No photos are known to exist that were taken from the second floor of the old Grossdale train station, while it was still located south of the railroad tracks from 1889-1981. Too bad, because some truly remarkable images could've been obtained simply by focusing a lens out of the windows. You could look right down the center of Grand Boulevard. And, because the sun was on the back of the station, you could shoot east and west, too, out of the daylight glare.

The Grossdale Pavilion/Village Hall was located at the corner of Brookfield and Prairie Avenues, yet where are the photos taken from the front and side porches, or the second floor walkway? Or even off the back porch and stairs, looking northward?

Over the years, I have read in old newspapers about photos taken from the top of the old Brookfield Water Tower, at the corner of Maple and Southview avenues. OK, where are these? I've never seen any.

In mid-April 1981, after the old train station was moved, I took some photos out the second story windows, and even the upper doorway. July 4, 1981, I caught the Independence Day parade passing by below my lens.

In January 1983, I took some shots off the top of the metal fire escape stairs, out back of St. Barbara's Old School Hall. In June 1985, I thought to take a photo from the top of the old Brookfield Library front cement steps, looking down at a scene that I knew no mortal eyes would ever see again. A photo or two here and there, nothing more.

It was in 1989 that I decided it was high time (no pun intended) to do what should have been done back in the 1890s. I planned to take a number of photos from the roof of Gross School, so neglected 94 years ago as a photo op point. This would serve as the beginning of a project that I might call "Brookfield from the Rooftops."

To school Principal Majchrowicz I explained what I was trying to do, and he gave permission for me to do it that very day. I was ready; I had my equipment (just in case), and so I did the job.

Around the perimeter of the roof, the village of Brookfield lay spread out before me. I scouted around for suitable, and not too dangerous vantage points to set up my camera and tripod. I used up a roll of film, 24 photos. No shot was too unimportant. How many people have the chance to do this? It was shortly before noon, and a physical education class was running around, 30-something feet below.

The Brookfield Federal Bank for Savings was still on the corner of Washington and Broadway. Brookfield Auto Supply was still doing business at 3436 Grand Boulevard, and the painted ad for Champion spark plugs still covered the southern wall. Even the curved roof of the old Jewel store, at 9139 Broadway, could still be seen. The results were so interesting that I mounted a dozen views, and they were set up in the window of Broadway Jim's Barber Shop, at 9216 Broadway.

After my school rooftop experience, I looked at a few more roofs, but judged that either they were too dangerous to try photographing off of, or the views would be just too dull, with nothing but the tops of trees showing, and no buildings and houses. Who needed pictures of just the tops of trees?

Then Brookfield had its centennial in 1993, and I shot photos of the carnival grounds from the top of the Ferris Wheel. It had been about four and a half years since I'd done my Gross School roof photos and I wondered it anything had changed. So, on Oct. 6, 1993, I took another roll. Minor changes. Century 21 Realty had become Harps Realty. The Brookfield Federal Bank had become Citibank. The roof line of Jewel was still unchanged, although I knew that the closed store was going to be demolished, and that would change the look of the area.

In August 1994, the Brookfield centennial book came out, and aerial views appeared on the title page, pages 2, 14, 45, 46, 75, 86, 165, 166, 193, 209 and 216. It was heartening to discover that this form of picture taking was not so rare as I had thought it to be. Furthermore, there exists today outside the Riverside-Brookfield High School gymnasium, a satellite photo of Brookfield taken in the mid-1990s. A handful of years ago, there used to be a 1937 airplane-taken view of the village on a board in the village hall, but before I could take a photo of it, it disappeared, and no one knew where it went to.

In late January 1995, the old Jewel store, built 40 years before, finally came tumbling down, but not all at once. A good, sound section of the rear was still in place, and I took photos all around of the destruction and the surroundings.

The next year, on June 20, 1995, I arranged to have several photos taken from up in a Hi-Ranger at the front of 8907 Burlington Blvd. This was a planned re-creation of the old series of five photos taken a century earlier, in 1895. Things sure did change in a mere 100 years.

Sometimes it doesn't take much effort to get an elevated view. I've taken photos off the top of playground equipment, and from the RB stadium's press box. At home, I have poked a camera out of second floor windows and took street shots, a most basic way of getting a different viewpoint of the world. It's not rocket science. Anyone can do this.

There's a whole new world out there, waiting for you to see, and it gets better, the higher up in the air you are. And if you have your camera along, you can preserve that special memory of having becoming a part of that elevated realm.