Jackson Park, Midway Plaisance & the South Shore Cultural Center have now been part of Preservation Chicago’s–Chicago 7 Most Endangered List for a third year in a row.
We at Preservation Chicago very much welcome and support the many buildings proposed for the new Obama Presidential Center, but for another nearby site and not on historic public parklands designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, with additions by Alfred Caldwell, May McAdams and others of national and world recognition.
The Obama Presidential Center (OPC) has been contentious among residents, citizens of Chicago and elsewhere across the nation because of concerns about gentrification and displacement and due to its placement within a historic park belonging to the people of Chicago for more than 130 years. It is also a lakefront site and subject to ordinances designed to keep the shoreline protected from private development and unnecessary non-public structures—and understood by many citizens to be “forever open and free.” This forever open and free idea along Chicago’s lakefront, while revolutionary in concept for a large American city of the 19th and early 20th century, originated in 1836. It gets challenged every so often because of political pressures and perhaps land values and speculation.
The proposed Obama Presidential Center campus is to be sited on about 20 acres of Jackson Park, situated near the Midway Plaisance at 60th and Stony Island Avenue and extending southward.
It is part of an on-going Federal Section 106 process required by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, due to the park’s significance and listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also subject to a review process through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and to Urban Parks and Recreational Recovery (UPARR), administered by the National Park Service.
Additionally, there is an on-going lawsuit to protect Jackson Park and to further encourage another nearby location for the OPC. The legal action by Protect Our Parks, Inc. (POP) is currently before the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. A tremendous amount of resources are being invested by both the City of Chicago and the Obama Foundation to place this new center and campus of buildings onto a historic Olmsted park and lakefront land where it does not belong. This proposed complex is contrary to Lakefront Ordinances and the public good, acknowledging for this site what has been upheld by Chicago for more than 150 years — that the lakefront should be “public ground. A common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings or other obstructions whatever,” with access to all.
This proposed Presidential Center to be situated on public lands has also absorbed thousands of hours of City staff time over the past few years, as well as preparation of thousands of pages of documents required for the Federal 106 related hearings and U.S. District Court proceedings. Had the University of Chicago and the Obama Foundation chosen a site that was not historically significant and on public lakefront land, the time investment would have been significantly reduced. If the Obama Presidential Center were proposed for nearby private lands, the complex would have most likely already been under construction and completed, likely with significantly less investment of public resources. The City of Chicago and the University of Chicago own significant amounts of land at alternative site locations, and this viable option should be further explored.
Chicago would not be the Chicago we know and love without its expansive park system and its celebrated lakefront lined with public open space, beaches, parks, harbors and public access. This network of parks, green spaces and lakefront lands should never ever be compromised in any way by anyone or anything which would cause irreparable harm to these parks, landscapes and features so well associated with the City of Chicago.
Jackson Park, Midway Plaisance and the South Shore Cultural Center are among the greatest historic and natural assets of Chicago’s South Side. The borders of these parks converge at South Shore Drive at 67th Street, and also at Stony Island Avenue and the Midway Plaisance, where Jackson Park connects to Washington Park, another remarkable Chicago treasure, also designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
All of the components of the green spaces and parklands are woven into a single brilliant series of ideas by Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm to extend and connect the lakefront and its parks. Tree-lined meadows, lagoons, islands and harbors are an integral part of cityscape and provide a respite from the dense built environment and urban life. These magnificent parks allow public access to millions of people, both residents and visitors alike, to lush green landscapes situated among old-growth trees and gardens.
The historic significance of Jackson Park, Midway Plaisance and the South Shore Cultural Center are monumental and well known to most audiences, including national and international scholars of architectural landscape design, historic landscapes and cultural heritage. The sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and certain features, structures and buildings of both park sites are designated Chicago Landmarks. These designated Chicago Landmarks within the boundaries of the two parks include the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) building, constructed as the Palace of Fine Arts in 1893, along with the Columbia/Darrow Bridge and the landscape features of the park surrounding the MSI building and bridge. The South Shore Cultural Center building, the Club Building, along with the Gatehouse, Stable, Pergola, along with several outdoor terraces are also part of the Chicago Landmark designation.
The 500-acre Jackson Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, perhaps the most famous landscape designer of the 19th century and widely considered to be “the father of American landscape architecture.” Jackson Park was also the site of one of the most important events in Chicago’s history and, arguably one of the most important cultural events of the 19th century, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Jackson Park is connected via the Midway to Washington Park and then to Chicago’s Emerald Necklace of great parks and boulevards, forming one of the most magnificent networks of urban parkland in the country.
The Mediterranean Revival-style South Shore Cultural Center, situated at 71st Street and the Lakefront, was originally designed as the South Shore Country Club, by the notable Chicago architectural firm of Marshall & Fox and landscape designer Thomas Hawkes. It is one of the most grand-scaled and recognizable landmarks on Chicago’s South Side. In its more recent past, it was the site of Barack and Michelle Obama’s wedding reception.
The transformation of the site and buildings from an exclusive private club to a public park and golf course is a major community preservation success story. In 1975, South Shore, Hyde Park and Woodlawn neighborhood residents and activists famously rescued the former private South Shore Country Club from demolition. The Chicago Park District and City of Chicago had the foresight to purchase the grounds from the failing country club, but they had planned to demolish and clear the club and ancillary buildings. After a lengthy community preservation advocacy effort and under intense community pressure, the Chicago Park District relented to broad public outcry and decided not to demolish the historic buildings and in time renovated and restored the buildings. Ultimately, the Chicago Park District supported the Chicago Landmark designation of most of the former country club structures and reversed a previous course of action that would have been as disastrous and heavy-handed as current plans for both Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center landscapes.
The creation of the South Shore Cultural Center as a public facility open to all visitors represents a victory of diversity and inclusion over the South Shore Country Club’s legacy of exclusion.
In 2017, a handful of local community groups came forward to advocate for changes to the proposed development plans. The number of organizations has grown exponentially, expanding well beyond the local stakeholders to include advocates from around the city and nation. Community organizations leading the advocacy effort include Jackson Park Watch, Save of the Midway, Midway Plaisance Advisory Council, Coalition to Save Jackson Park, Blacks in Green, The Hyde Park Historical Society and Friends of the Park.
Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center are intertwined in a host of new proposals which endanger the Olmsted-designed Jackson Park and the Cultural Center’s grounds and Nature Sanctuary. The proposed 20-acre Obama Presidential Center (in Jackson Park) and the proposed redesign and merging of two historic century-old public golf courses in both parks into one professional grade-PGA Tournament facility will significantly and adversely impact the historic features and the overall design, quality, appearance and the spirit of these world-renowned parks.
The proposed OPC’s core of buildings is comprised of three structures. The main building stands about 230-feet tall — the height of a 20-story building (the tallest structure proposed for any Chicago park by more than 150 feet). The other two buildings stand two stories in height. An underground parking garage and a field house are also included in the plans and located to the south of the three-building complex. These structures were all designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.
This is to be a private museum and center, hosting both public and private events situated on public lands and perhaps owned in part by the City. It will be operated by the Obama Foundation which will charge entry and parking fees for operations of its facility.
Preservation Chicago and other advocacy groups remain concerned about the level of influence by privately held organizations in the management of public parkland, including the Obama Foundation, the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, Project 120, and Smith Group JJR. As non-profits and private companies, they serve their respective boards of directors and owners, and have their own priorities and objectives which may not align with those of our public and governmental agencies. These private organizations do not directly serve the public and have no obligation to include the public in the planning process. However, Preservation Chicago acknowledges that the Obama Foundation has hosted a series of public and consulting party/stakeholder meetings that have allowed public comments to be provided to the design team. The central challenge is that the control of public lands is being relinquished to private entities.
Without rigorous oversight, the protection of historic landscapes and structures can be significantly compromised. Last year, Preservation Chicago joined a wide consortium of advocacy groups, neighborhood organizations and community leaders in calling for a transparent, comprehensive and thoughtful planning process from the City of Chicago, Chicago Park District, Obama Foundation, Chicago Parks Golf Alliance and Project 120.
Additional threats include the removal of Olmsted-designed Cornell Drive, a widening of South Lake Shore Drive and a widening of Stony Island Avenue to accommodate a privately run museum complex. The proposed widening of South Lake Shore Drive will likely impact both Jackson Park and the Lakefront, along with access to Lake Michigan, the harbors, 57th Street Beach and 63rd Street Beach.
The OPC as proposed is a center and museum as opposed to a more traditional presidential library. The Obama Foundation chose to forgo the associated regulations imposed by Congress on managing a presidential library on the site. Presidential libraries have specific requirements that regulate and limit the square footage and size of these institutions, specifically so they do not become too large and monumental to maintain. There are also strict financial requirements and obligations associated with funding presidential libraries.
In lieu of a presidential library, a Chicago Public Library branch library facility is included in the OPC plans. This facility will be much like the 79 existing branch locations throughout Chicago’s 77 community areas. It is our understanding that this branch library is completely unrelated to President Obama’s documents, and it will be operated by Chicago’s library system and supported by taxpayer revenue.
Additionally, several plans from the private for-profit design and planning contractors Smith Group JJR, also known as Project 120, have reappeared in some of the Chicago Park District’s South Lakefront Framework Plans. These include a proposed Jackson Park visitor’s center, large-scale music pavilion and other plans, which will completely and unequivocally destroy and change the character and design of this world-renowned park. Make no bones about these proposed changes to Chicago’s Olmsted-designed parklands — they will alter and both negatively and adversely impact the landscape, destroy huge volumes of trees and gardens, interfere with migratory paths of wildlife and impact broad viewsheds, both in and around the park.
These park projects are all heavy-handed design plans. If implemented, they could lead to the consideration of a de-listing of Jackson Park and perhaps the South Shore Cultural Center from the National Register of Historic Places. This would be much like what occurred at Soldier Field, another Chicago Park District re-visioning project with the City of Chicago. So many adverse modifications were made to Solider Field in 2002-2003 that it had to be dropped and removed from the National Register. If this same impact and loss occurred at Jackson Park and/or the South Shore Cultural Center, it would be a significant loss to the Woodlawn community, the City of Chicago and supporters around the country and world.
These are sacred spaces, coveted lands and landscapes that should be protected in perpetuity as an asset to the citizens of Chicago. This history and character should not be modified and manipulated over the decades until all that is left is a shell of what once was.
To realize how important our parks can be look no further than the success of Millennium Park, opened in 2004, which is a major tourist engine for Chicago. Or consider the Museum Campus, including the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Planetarium. These valued downtown assets were once railway and freight yards. We should consider for the OPC a location on underutilized land that does not negatively harm our cherished landscapes and public parks.
Without rigorous oversight, the protection of historic landscapes and structures can be significantly compromised. Over two years ago, Preservation Chicago joined a wide consortium of advocacy groups, neighborhood organizations and community leaders in calling for transparent planning that allows ample opportunity for community voices to be heard and valued. Those efforts, led by the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council and Save the Midway, were successful in redirecting the planned multi-story parking garage on the Midway Plaisance to another location.
Multiple rounds of community input and design updates have shown key constituent requests largely dismissed to accommodate the programmatic priorities of the Obama Foundation and Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, casting doubt on the good faith and transparency of the public process.
Beyond minor and incremental changes to the plans, specific threats to the historic park landscapes remain. According to the Obama Foundation, approximately 300 trees (many of which are old-growth) would be clear-cut, and a major regrading of the site would be undertaken for the construction of the OPC. An additional 2,000 trees would be clear cut and major regrading undertaken for the new fairways of the expanded golf course.
On September 20, 2018, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance that approved the 99-year lease of 19.3 acres in Jackson Park for a total of $10. Jackson Park Watch co-founder Margaret Schmid said, “The idea of leasing invaluable, irreplaceable public parkland to a private entity for $10 for 99 years is astounding in this era when public lands and natural resources are under attack in so many places. Besides, Chicago’s finances are extremely precarious.” (Sweet, Chicago Sun-Times, 9/18/18)
As part of this lease deal, the City agreed to reimburse the Obama Foundation for environmental testing of the development site. These testing costs were capped at $75,000. However, in the final language of the approved Ordinance, the taxpayers of the City of Chicago and State of Illinois are now fully responsible and liable for ALL costs related to any environmental remediation required or resulting from the construction of the OPC in Jackson Park. This language includes no cap for the total cost. Estimated remediation costs are not yet available, but it can be expected that the final remediation costs for this blank check will likely be substantial.
The City of Chicago and State of Illinois have also agreed to cover the cost of $172 million in discretionary road changes in Jackson Park. The oft-repeated argument is that the ultimate cost burden will be borne by taxpayers – both state and federal. Federal funds for road improvements are limited, and those resources should be awarded first to desperately needed roadwork and crumbling infrastructure elsewhere in the city.
Despite a motion by the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District to dismiss the lawsuit, the Protect Our Parks litigation was allowed to proceed as of February 19, 2019 before the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois. The Federal Section 106 hearings have been stalled.
While Preservation Chicago is not a party to the on-going lawsuit and litigation by Protect Our Parks, we submitted an Amicus Brief, along with the community-based organization, Jackson Park Watch. The Brief clarified that most of Chicago’s institutions in the parks were built upon the footprint of former buildings and institutions within the parks, or had reused or repurposed existing historic structures, or were constructed buildings on lands used for other purposes (e.g. railway yards), and the parks had grown around these institutions in time. This is an important point as a precedent as no Chicago parklands were given to a new campus of buildings as the City of Chicago and Chicago Park District suggest.
The Art Institute of Chicago, by architects Shepley Rutan & Coolidge of 1893, was constructed on the former site of the Industrial Interstate Exhibition Building by W.W. Boyington at the same location from 1873-1892. The Museum of Contemporary Art designed by German Architect Josef Paul Kleihues, was constructed on the site of the old Chicago Avenue Armory which was designed by architects Holabird & Roche. The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, designed by Ralph Johnson of Perkins & Will, was built on the site of the old Lincoln Park/North Shops buildings.
The Museum of Science and Industry is housed in the former Palace of Fine Arts building from the Columbian Exposition or Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 in Jackson Park. It is the only large-scale building of great magnitude in Jackson Park. Olmsted also redesigned Jackson Park around this structure following the World’s Fair, so this building has been part of the landscape of Jackson Park for 126 years.
The DuSable Museum of African American History is housed in the former South Park Commissioners Building in Washington Park, designed by Daniel Burnham and his firm D. H. Burnham & Company. The DuSable Museum has continued to expand its facilities over time near its site, including a recent renovation and restoration of the former Washington Park Stables Building by architects Burnham & Root.
The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture is housed in the restored and repurposed former Humboldt Park Horse Stables in historic Humboldt Park, designed by architects Fromman & Jebsen in 1895. The National Museum of Mexican Art reused and reconfigured former buildings in Harrison Park for this amazing institution.
The Field Museum of Natural History, the John G. Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium were all mostly built upon former railway lands, which had been part of on-going landfills over time. Burnham Park and Grant Park grew and extended around these institutions following their construction. Finally, the Chicago History Museum, originally called the Chicago Historical Society, was built upon a corner of the city’s old public cemetery at a commercial corner of Lincoln Park near Clark Street and North Avenue. This section of what was to become Lincoln Park still holds the remains of at least several known individuals, including the mausoleum of Ira Couch and the grave of David Kennison, said to be the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party.
Preservation Chicago is also concerned about the redesign and co-joining of the historic Jackson Park Golf Course (18 holes), the oldest course west of the Alleghany Mountains, and that of the nearby South Shore Cultural Center (9 holes). This reconstituting will substantially impact the historic landscape, some features designed by architect Alfred Caldwell and Olmsted & Vaux, and remove and cut several thousand old-growth trees.
Preservation Chicago joins the fervent support of the Obama Presidential Center locating in Chicago. It just should not be in Jackson Park. The Obama Foundation’s drawings for a site west of Washington Park would be a great location for the OPC. The University of Chicago, along with the City of Chicago has been assembling acreage adjacent to Washington Park, and that area has great access to public transportation. This location is targeted for redevelopment and is adjacent to the Garfield Park L stop for the Green and Red line trains. The OPC located there would be an extraordinary asset to the community and the City and would make this remarkable monument to President Obama’s legacy more accessible to people throughout the area. In solidarity with the residents of the area, Preservation Chicago calls on the Obama Foundation to enter into a binding Community Benefits Agreement for this alternate site to ensure that promises made to avoid displacement and provide more jobs are kept.
The City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District need to develop plans that reflect the full range of stakeholders in this process and balance the interests of their constituents with the interests of private developers. They should prioritize an open and transparent process in determining the future of our public lands and green spaces. In the process, they should protect the historic integrity of these nationally and locally significant landscapes, structures and buildings so they may remain accessible assets for the people of the South Side, Chicago and the world for generations to come.
To help restore the area the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District should consider narrowing the Olmsted-designed historic parkways instead of closing and removing them completely and retaining South Lake Shore Drive, with its current proportions and winding Lakefront Boulevard characteristics. This would render unnecessary the proposed widening of the other roadways and perhaps save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
Preservation Chicago reaffirms its commitment to providing a constructive, preservation-oriented voice in this large and complex conversation. As a consulting party in the federally mandated Section 106 review process, Preservation Chicago will continue to strongly advocate for the importance of protecting historic features, including the world-renowned Olmsted landscapes. We continue to work to ensure that any construction in the historic parks will be conducted with sensitivity to historic features, historic structures and historic landscapes. This includes archaeologically important sites such as the foundations and remnants of the Women’s Building designed by Sophia Hayden, the only female architect who designed a building for the Exposition; the Children’s Building; and other important structures and features from the World Columbian Exposition in 1893, likely hidden below the soil line. Also, this proposed construction would impact the Woman’s Garden, also known as the Perennial Garden in Jackson Park, designed by May McAdams in 1937, a noted female landscape architect.
We remain hopeful that the federal review process mandated by the National Preservation Act will reinforce the importance of protecting the important features of the park and minimizing the adverse effects of new construction. Specifically, we want to insure that the South Shore Cultural Center be included in the Section 106 process already underway, or a new Section 106 process be initiated specifically for the golf course expansion project at both Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center.
A formal survey of Jackson Park and South Shore Cultural Center trees, detailing type, age and caliper, should be conducted along with an assessment of which trees are planned to be cleared. The findings of this survey should then be released to the public for comment and discussion before any work begins. Also, while an inventory of historic structures in Jackson Park has been approved, there are a number of critical needs for historic buildings that require urgent repair to stabilize and return them to public use.
Preservation Chicago will continue to push for a written agreement from the Chicago Park District that some percentage of the many millions of dollars to be invested in these potential projects will be earmarked instead for the badly needed maintenance and rehabilitation of historic park structures. These include the South Shore Cultural Center main building and stables, as well Jackson Park improvements to the Comfort Station, the Iowa Building, the Columbia/Darrow Bridge, public paths and meadows, and ball fields.
There is significant Chicago history buried underground at Jackson Park. Archaeological explorations from seven borings on the site were shared at one of the Section 106 meetings. They revealed nearly 10,000 objects from the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition. We understand that permanent concrete foundations for all the temporary buildings are also located below the soil line, and it is our opinion that these features should remain intact and should not be destroyed by heavy-equipment, which will backhoe the site. The Women’s Garden, the approximate site of Sophia Haden’s Women’s Building during the World’s Columbia Exposition, should also not be disturbed. This was the only building designed by a woman architect for the 1893 Fair, which highlighted great strides and accomplishments by women all housed in a magnificent building, on scale with many of the large structures of the Fair.
1. Relocate the Obama Presidential Center to a nearby site outside of Jackson Park. Land just west of Washington Park provides great public transportation access, and a good deal of this land is already owned by the City of Chicago and the University of Chicago.
2. Repair and restore the existing Jackson Park Golf Course and the South Shore Cultural Center golf course. These currently serve the public well, but they are in need of some long-deferred maintenance.
3. Move the proposed TGR Golf Course concept for Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center southward to the new South Lake Shore Drive Extension and extend it to the site of the former and now demolished United States Steel factories in the South Chicago neighborhood. This would be an economic boost to the South Chicago and East Side neighborhoods of Chicago, and it would result in three separate golf courses for a major city like Chicago. A large 18-hole golf course on the former U.S. Steel site, suitable for hosting PGA Championship games, would “green” this former industrial site as part of on-going efforts to retain publicly accessible parks and green space along the extraordinary and expansive Chicago Lakefront.
4. Repair and Landmark the South Shore Cultural Center’s and Jackson Park’s existing historic buildings, structures, paths, meadows, bridges (including the Columbia/Clarence Darrow Bridge—closed for almost a decade for safety reasons). These structures have suffered through enough long-deferred maintenance. One of the historic structures, the modest one-story Comfort Station at 67th Street and South Shore Drive, which is in terrible disrepair, had a partial roof collapse in the past six months.
5. Narrow the Olmsted-designed roadways and parkways to their historic pre-1960s dimensions. The 1960s widening project was considered a misstep by the general public at that time and was part of numerous protests. A substantial number of trees were lost during that widening project. A narrowing of Cornell Drive, in lieu of total closure, could provide a correction of these missteps and help to again restore a tree-lined boulevard through the park which everyone could enjoy. Everyone should be able to enjoy the pastoral setting of Jackson Park by various modes – walking, jogging, biking and driving.
6. Retain South Lake Shore Drive’s current proportions and winding Lakefront Boulevard characteristics, and retain the current proportions of Stony Island Avenue, without unnecessary expansions.
7. The entirety of Jackson Park, the Midway and Washington Park—the Olmsted & Vaux parks, should be considered for a Chicago Landmark designation.
8. In its entirety, the Chicago Lakefront Park System should be considered as a National Monument or National Park. This would be much like the recent honor further recognizing the Indiana Dunes as a National Park, or the Pullman Historic District of Chicago as a National Monument. This would protect our valuable public lakefront parks from further attempts at parceling them out to private developers and would provide additional resources for maintenance and rehabilitation.