THREATENED: Jackson Park, South Shore Cultural Center Grounds & Midway Plaisance

Address: Bounded by Lake Michigan, 56th, Stony Island and 71st, Chicago
Landscape Architects: Frederick Law Olmsted & Calvert Vaux , F.L. Olmsted & Co., Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot with additions by Alfred Caldwell and May McAdams (Jackson Park & Midway Plaisance)
Architects: Benjamin Marshall & Charles Fox, Thomas Hawkes (South Shore Cultural Center)
Date: c.1870s to 1937
Style: Naturalistic
Neighborhood: Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

LINK TO FULL TEXT including overview, history, threat, recommendations and a gallery of photos

Jackson Park, Midway Plaisance and the South Shore Cultural Center have now been part of Preservation Chicago’s Chicago 7 Most Endangered List for a fourth year in a row, noting the threat to one of America’s greatest public parks and boulevards and one of Chicago’s lakefront legacy parks and greenspaces.

We very much welcome the proposed Obama Presidential Center to Chicago’s South Side, but for another nearby site and not on historic public parklands designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Olmsted Brothers, and 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, displacement, and its placement within a historic park belonging to the people of Chicago for more than 130 years. The chosen location 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,” even if this generally applies to lands near downtown in Grant Park. 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 with the establishment of Lake Park. These values and regulations are challenged and disputed every so often because of political pressures and speculation. It is once again challenged by elected officials who should represent the voice of the people and protect public assets for the public good and not make exceptions for a private development in the city’s parks, lakefront and greenspaces.

The proposed OPC campus is to be sited on about 20 acres of Jackson Park near the Midway Plaisance at 60th and Stony Island Avenue and extending southward. The plans from the very beginning were flawed, with the University of Chicago and the Obama Foundation, along with former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, suggesting and offering the Chicago lakefront park as a site for a private development in the park. This was an absolutely terrible idea, which has gained traction through political maneuvers and has literally imposed this proposed complex on the citizens of Chicago. Efforts to support this lakefront site in Jackson Park, by the City and officials, have resulted in spending countless taxpayer money – perhaps millions of dollars – in addition to City staff time and resources. This is all occurring when an abundance of nearby vacant land in Woodlawn, the Washington Park neighborhood, and other communities sits idle. The expedited process that saw the City approve the proposed OPC plans was neither transparent nor without controversy. It was simply and essentially a taking of public lands to extend private development on parklands that are considered sacred by the people of Chicago.

Due to this historic park site being selected by the Obama Foundation for the 20-acre Obama Presidential Center and its campus of buildings, this site is part of an ongoing Federal Section 106 review process required by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This is 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 the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery (UPARR) Act administered by the National Park Service. However, we are hopeful that those agencies are clear in their vision and not swayed by political pressures, as some of these agencies have representatives from the City of Chicago leading hearings and thereby perhaps directing decisions.

In any case, negative and adverse effects on Jackson Park by the OPC have been determined by the City and several agencies, which also appear to be resigned to the destruction of Jackson Park, in addition to the loss of hundreds of trees, important landscapes and historic viewsheds. Combine that adverse impact with the consolidation of two historic golf courses into one (with plans to cut hundreds of trees), and the historic landscapes of two important parks and nature center will forever be adversely impacted by these drastic and insensitive proposed changes to Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center.

We need our federal agencies not to falter. However, public opinion may also impact decisions, as the destruction of Jackson Park could also become part of national headlines in the future. Would New York City or New Yorkers allow such radical changes to or the removal of hundreds of trees from Central Park? Most likely not.

Proposed Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park Towering Over the Museum of Science & Industry and Lagoons. Rendering Credit: Obama Foundation
Tree Cut and Removal in Jackson Park for the Widening of Cornell Drive in Following Citizen Protests in September 1965. Photo Credit: Nancy Hays

OVERVIEW continued
There is an ongoing lawsuit, and perhaps a series of them looking to the future, to protect Jackson Park and to encourage another nearby location for the OPC. The legal action by Protect Our Parks, Inc. (POP) is once again before the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, after a prior ruling in favor of the City of Chicago.

A tremendous amount of resources continues to be 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.

In addition, South Lake Shore Drive is proposed to be widened, perhaps removing some of its boulevard characteristics, for modern-day highway standards as a result of removing two historic Olmsted Boulevards – Cornell Drive and portions of Hayes Drive – from historic Jackson Park. In addition, Stony Island Avenue is also proposed to be widened, and this land is to be essentially comandeered from Jackson Park along with a portion of newly restored prairie and countless trees — some old growth trees — lost to these proposed ill-conceived plans.

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 Section 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, not on the National Register of Historic Places, and not on public lakefront lands, the time investment would have been significantly reduced. If the OPC were proposed for nearby private lands, the complex would have most likely already been under construction and completed and perhaps 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.

Perhaps the most telling sign is the rising levels of Lake Michigan, which have led to the recent destruction of lakefront trails and pathways, seawalls and revetments in some places. The Chicago lakefront parks not only act as our collective green lungs, but they also serve as a buffer zone and at times wetlands and partially submerged land between beautiful Lake Michigan and the City’s built environment beyond. Even Frederick Law Olmsted and the South Park Commissioners in the 1870s thought the land on which Jackson Park exists resembled marshlands and wetlands, with plans proceeding first for the creation of Washington Park and the Midway. It was only later, and with additional funds, that Jackson Park’s partially submerged wetlands were realized as a park. To this day, Jackson Park has a high-water table, and its tremendous landscape is lined with many lagoons, harbors and inlets, all bordering expansive Lake Michigan.

Our parks and greenspaces act as a buffer-zone between Lake Michigan and the built environment of Chicago. In locations where parkland does not exist, or is minimal, at South Shore on the South Side and Rogers Park and Edgewater on the North Side, we see extreme concerns relating to buildings, roadways and lakefront lands being destroyed by the forces of nature—and Lake Michigan. These legacy lakefront parks are important in so many ways looking to the future. They will continue to provide a buffer between Lake Michigan and the built-environment and also allowing for a flood plain or overflow lands if necessary, for water retention in the future. This is much like the lagoons, harbors and semi-marshlands already provide in some areas of Jackson Park and the Chicago lakefront. The construction of a large 20-acre campus of buildings, will also adversely impact and perhaps further exacerbate water management and retention issues in the parks, with their prominent wetland areas.

It’s also important to remember and protect the beauties of nature for its restorative health, stress relieving help and this will be adversely and negatively affected, with the proposed impact of the OPC. This is simply the wrong place for such a development and it appears forced on these lands and in this park in every way.

Jackson Park. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

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 are kept to avoid displacement and provide more jobs.

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 Historic Preservation Act will reinforce the importance of protecting the historic 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 that 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 existing historic park structures. These include the South Shore Cultural Center main building and stables, as well as 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 Hayden’s Woman’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. The garden honoring Ms. Hayden’s Woman’s Building, designed by a woman landscape architect, should remain intact.

View of Central Entrance at Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park © Beautiful Scenes of the White City and the Fabulous Midway Plaisance, Farewell Edition, Laird & Lee Publishers, 1894
View of Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park © Beautiful Scenes of the White City and the Fabulous Midway Plaisance, Farewell Edition, Laird & Lee Publishers, 1894
Interior View of Main Hall at Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park © The World’s Columbian Exposition; Portfolio of Views, C.D Arnold and H.D. Higinbotham, 1893

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 at Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and Garfield Boulevard adjacent to the CTA Green Line Station.

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, and 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 year or so. The roof of a second comfort station in Jackson Park has been removed and the hope is that a new roof will soon replace the blue tarps.

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. 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. This could be an amazing partnership if implemented with the National Park Service, the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago all sharing the stewardship of Chicago’s lakefront parks.

Nature Sanctuary at South Shore Cultural Center. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers


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