THREATENED: Thousands of Archeological Artifacts Discovered in Jackson Park at Proposed Obama Center Site (Chicago 7 2017 & 2018)

Jackson Park has been included as a Preservation Chicago 7 Most Endangered in 2017 and again in 2018. We have been actively advocating for the protection this important historic landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Preservation Chicago does not oppose the Obama Presidential Center but would strongly prefer that it be built in a location other than historic Jackson Park.

Federal environmental and historic preservation laws require that U.S. agencies examine the impact of proposed plans on historic buildings and sites. As part of the ongoing federal Section 106 Review, the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) excavated seven small sites in Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance. This small sampling resulted in the researchers discovering “9,841 artifacts, among them nails, spoons, buttons, bottles and a fan-shaped brass Japanese necklace that probably was made in the 1940s and lost by an anonymous park-goer.” We assume that none of the nails discovered was the golden nail driven by Mrs. Bertha Honore Palmer. This golden nail was the final nail used in the construction of the Sophia Hayden designed Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Despite the small sampling, the remarkable number of discovered artifacts have already begun to shed light on one of the great mysteries surrounding one of the Exposition’s great buildings was 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)

Additionally, “the archaeologists found graphite rods from lamps used to illuminate the fairgrounds and its buildings, as well as fragments of cups and saucers that bear the mark of Chase and Sanborn’s “Seal Brand” Coffee.”

“Although they are broken bits, the ceramic pieces strike an emotional chord, said Rebecca Graff, an assistant anthropology professor at Lake Forest College who did Jackson Park archaeological digs for her dissertation. “The scale (of the Fair) changes,” said Graff, who recently saw the artifacts firsthand at an ISAS facility in Elgin. “It becomes something very human-scaled, that you can interact with in a different way. It’s sort of like you’re communing with something.”

Noting that former President Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, was an anthropologist, Graff urged that the Obama center present an exhibit of the artifacts in its museum tower, in order to make a connection between the World’s Fair of 1893 and the center. “It’s an obvious connection and an important one,” she said. “Like the fair, (the center) will bring people from all over the world to this site.” (Kamin, Chicago Tribune, March 25, 2018)

There continues to be deep and sustained fascination with the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, as 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. Erik Larson’s bestselling book, “The Devil in the White City,” spent three years on The New York Times bestseller list, including time as the #1 bestseller. It has sold millions of copies and has been translated into 17 languages. In 2011, the film rights were sold to Leonardo DiCaprio and there will likely be another surge in interest after the film is released.

The Obama Presidential Center could leverage interest in the World’s Columbian Exposition to maintain a strong tourist interest for decades to come, if the Obama Presidential Center embraces this extraordinary chapter of Chicago’s history and respects the archeological significance of Jackson Park.

19-acres of Jackson Park will be “regraded” by bulldozer to prepare for the construction of the Obama Presidential Center will destroy tens of thousands of Exposition artifacts and remove over 300 trees, including many old growth trees.

Perhaps the discovered Exposition artifacts could be displayed at the new Obama Presidential Center, if it were to be located in proximity to, but not within the historical borders of Jackson Park (with the possible exception being the site of the former freight rail siding for the Columbian Exposition located in the southwest corner of Jackson Park).

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, the extension to Stony Island Avenue, the berm, and other planting and trees.

Additional Reading

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

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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