THREATENED: Obama Presidential Center to go before Chicago Plan Commission on May 17 (Chicago 7 2017 & 2018)

Archaeological Excavation at Jackson Park yields thousands of artifacts, Photo Credit: City of Chicago

Jackson Park has been a Preservation Chicago 7 Most Endangered in 2017 and again in 2018. We are advocating the protection of this important historic landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux with contributions by Alfred Caldwell. Preservation Chicago does not oppose the Obama Presidential Center, but would strongly prefer the 20-acre private facility to be constructed in a location other than historic Jackson Park.

On May 17th, the Obama Presidential Center plan will be presented it to the Chicago Plan Commission for rezoning approval. The Chicago Department of Transportation road construction plan will be reviewed as well as the Obama Presidential Center’s adherence to the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. This is an important meeting and will likely to be well-attended. Every person who wishes to speak will be allowed three minutes. Please attend and we would encourage you to voice your opinion.

South Side activists advocating for the Obama Foundation to sign a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) loudly disrupted the Chicago Plan Commission meeting on April 19, 2018 calling on the aldermen and commissioners to vote against the proposed Obama Presidential Center. They were escorted out of the Council Chambers. Activists have staged protests in front of aldermanic offices throughout the city in recent weeks to raise legitimate concerns that the proposed Obama Presidential Center will increase housing costs and displace many long-term community residents. Even before any construction work has begun, significant increases in local rental rates have already been documented.

In advance of this meeting, the Obama Foundation has been conducting a public relations campaign to shore up support for the project with email, postcards, and other campaign-style outreach. There is support in general for locating the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago and on the South Side, but there is strong opposition to many of the proposed details including its proposed location on public lands, the $175 million of taxpayer dollars required to pay for extensive infrastructure roadway reconfiguration, and the refusal of the Obama Foundation to agree to a Community Benefits Agreement. A host of other issues remain unresolved.

As part of Federal Section 106 Review, the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) excavated seven small sites in Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance. This small sampling resulting in the researchers discovering “9,841 artifacts, among them nails, spoons, buttons, bottles and a fan-shaped brass Japanese necklace”. We assume that none of the nails discovered was the golden nail driven by Mrs. Bertha Honore Palmer, the final nail used in the construction of the Woman’s Building designated by Sophia Hayden at the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Despite the small sampling, the remarkable number of discovered artifacts have already begun to shed light on one on the great mysteries surrounding one of the Exposition’s great buildings; the actual color of Louis Sullivan’s legendary Transportation Building. While most of the plaster staff artifacts were white, “the finds include eight pieces of red-colored staff and a fragment of amber-colored stained glass that are probably remnants of the reddish Transportation Building and its monumental golden entryway.”

“Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s official cultural historian and an expert on Sullivan’s architecture, said the materials could help determine the exact colors of the Transportation Building and even the shades of the white buildings in the White City. Because the fair occurred in an era of black-and-white photography and “unreliable color imagery,” he said, historians have yet to determine what its colors were with precision.” (Kamin, Chicago Tribune, March 25, 2018)

The recent discovery of landscape drawings signed by noted Chicago landscape architect Alfred Caldwell from the 1930’s increase the historical significance of the existing landscape elements that exist in Jackson Park today, including a berm extending along Stony Island Avenue and 67th Street, and other plantings and trees on the golf course greens and fairways from holes 8 through 11.

May 1, 2018 was the 125th anniversary of the opening day of the World’s Columbian Exposition on 1893. This was one of the most important cultural events in Chicago’s history (it is represented by one of the four stars on Chicago’s flag) and arguably one of the most important cultural events of the late 19th century.

We hope that that the Chicago City Council decides to recognize and celebrate this important milestone by voting to deny the zoning change to permit the bulldozing of twenty-acres of Jackson Park and destroying the archaeological treasures which lie beneath the surface.

Additional Reading

South Siders Take Fight for Obama Library Benefits Agreement To Rogers Park, Lee Edwards, Block Club Chicago, April 12, 2018 

South Side Obama center activists removed after disrupting Plan Commission meeting, Lolly Bowean, Chicago Tribune, 4/19/2018

Column: Artifacts from 1893 World’s Fair found beneath Obama center site, but report signals construction won’t be blocked, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 3/25/18

Digging under Obama library site unearths World’s Fair artifacts, but construction will proceed, Matthew Marani, The Architects Newspaper, March 26, 2018

Jackson Park, Preservation Chicago 7 Most Endangered 2018

What does a presidential building look like?, Alexandra Lange, Curbed, March 22, 2018

In the Rough: Residents remain dissatisfied with plans for expanded Tiger Woods golf course, Jonathan Ballew, South Side Weekly, March 6, 2018

‘East-coasters butt out’ and more from the wildcat Obama Presidential Center debate Deanna Isaacs, Chicago Reader, March 9, 2018 

Column: The dilemma of development: Will Obama center hurt those it’s supposed to help?, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, March 3, 2018

Obama asks for trust at community meeting on Presidential Center, Sara Freund, Curbed Chicago, February 28, 2018

Meet the Community Organizers Fighting Against … Barack Obama, Edward McClelland, Politico Magazine, February 28, 2018

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