Unveiled Obama Presidential Library Design in Jackson Park to be Located on Site of World’s Columbian Exposition Woman’s Building

Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Building, Photo Credit The White City, Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1983, Chicago Historical Society/Chicago History Museum

On May 3rd before a packed meeting held at the South Shore Cultural Center, President Obama unveiled plans for the Obama Presidential Center. To be located on nine acres on Jackson Park, Obama intends the library initiative to be a “transformational project for this community.” He hopes the Presidential Center creates a dynamic hub on the South Side that will serve as a training institute for young people and the next generation of leadership.

The planned three building campus surrounding a plaza space includes two low-slung buildings with landscaped rooftop gardens and a monumental 180-foot tall stone-clad building. To provide some context, the 11-story Reva and David Logan Center for Arts at the University of Chicago is 168 feet tall, and the 11-story historic landmark Hyde Park Bank Building at 53rd and Harper is 135 feet tall. The proposed Obama Presidential Library would be taller than both of these structures.

While much of the plan received positive review, the tower element received more critique. Blair Kamin wrote, “In its current form, the tower suggests an expanded version of a truncated obelisk. It’s too heavy, too funereal, too Pharaonic, too pyramid-like.”

The design team includes architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and Brooklyn-based landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh. The Foundation and design team has indicated that they are aware that they are designing within the context of a one of the most important landscapes, designed by one the worlds’ greatest landscape designers. Jackson Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also designed New York’s Central Park.

If the library is built in Jackson Park, Preservation Chicago would like to see the Obama Library and Foundation formally adopt all of Jackson Park’s upkeep and to restore a number of historic buildings within the park that have fallen into significant disrepair, such as the Comfort Station located at 6600 S. South Shore Drive, the Iowa Building located near 57th and Lake Shore Drive, and others.

The current plan calls for the closure of Cornell Drive as it winds through Jackson Park. The original Frederick Law Olmsted plans called for this parkway drive. Preservation Chicago supports the narrowing of Cornell Drive to more closely follow the original design intent which would create a slower, more pastoral boulevard along the western shore of the Lagoon. This would reverse much of the impact caused by widening Cornell Drive in the 1960’s.

Preservation Chicago supports the Obama Library coming to Chicago’s South Side and the economic stimulus it will generate. Additionally, we believe that some adjustments to the location could significantly mitigate many of the negative impacts without compromising the projects benefits and goals.

During an interview with WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, Ward Miller suggested, if the library is built in Jackson Park, that a more appropriate location for the presidential library within the Park would be a few blocks further south, the site of the former rail yards that serviced the World’s Columbian Exposition. Also, this would bring it into closer proximity to Theaster Gate’s highly dynamic Stony Island Arts Bank adaptive reuse development.

A better location within Jackson Park is just a few blocks south on 64th and Stony Island where a rundown storage facility and service yard, a 1950’s-era field house, and overgrown tennis courts could be cleared for the Obama Presidential Library with less impact to the Frederick Law Olmsted design and the loss of fewer old-growth trees.

“This could be a middle ground here. This is a part of the park that could welcome the building without impacting it in a huge way,” said Miller.

The currently selected location by the Obama Presidential Library in Jackson Park was the site of several extraordinary buildings from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition including, the Woman’s Building, the Children’s Building, the Horticulture Building, and the Transportation Building. The foundations of these structures remain hidden just below the soil line.

The Women’s Building [from the World’s Columbian Exposition] was so important on so many levels and designed by architect, Sophia Hayden, her first and only commission. This was the beginning of the recognition of many achievements of women and a platform, which still impacts us today. It should be a celebrated site, to this remarkable history, and the achievement of a magnificent Beaux-Arts building.” (Ward Miller, Letter to Editor, Hyde Park Herald)

The environmental impact of building on the currently proposed site would be significant. This site is highly wooded with many old-growth trees. “We’re looking at the [loss of] hundreds and hundreds of trees in Jackson Park either diminished or lost or cut – in addition to numerous baseball diamonds and a really first-class football field with a running track that’s relatively new and well used,” said Ward Miller. These features would be lost or need to be relocated elsewhere in the Park.

Preservation Chicago remains concerned over the precedent being set by converting public park land to other uses. One alternate location outside of Jackson Park that could be considered is the South Shore Cultural Center.

President Obama envisions the library as a cultural hub and a training institute for the next generation of Chicagoans and leaders. The South Shore Cultural Center already provides many of these services, but programming and maintenance of the large historic buildings is a potential ongoing challenge for the budget constrained Chicago Park District.
The Obama Presidential Library could make an excellent reuse of these historic features and buildings at a fraction of the cost and impact of the current proposal.

While the South Shore Cultural Center enjoys 60 spectacular acres of lakefront property, the grounds are dominated by a golf course and the South Shore Nature Sanctuary in the southeast corner of the grounds.

The South Shore Cultural Center building itself is a remarkable Mediterranean Revival historic landmark designed by Marshall & Fox in 1916. The formal ballrooms and meeting spaces already feel “presidential” with their formal classical revival detailing and ornament. Not surprisingly, the unveiling of the Library plan was held at the South Shore Cultural Center which easily accommodated the 300 attendees and created an elegant backdrop to the press conference. The site is already fenced which would better control access and security for presidential and diplomatic functions.

Additionally, the Obama’s have a strong personal connection with the South Shore Cultural Center, as this was where they held their wedding reception in 1992.

The Metra Electric Line/Illinois Central Station is steps from the South Shore Cultural Center’s Gatehouse. The Metra Electric is already an unofficial cultural transit connection, originating at Millennium Park/Chicago Cultural Center, with stops at the Art Institute, the Museum Campus, Prairie Avenue, McCormick Place, Museum of Science and Industry, University of Chicago, and the South Shore Cultural Center.

The commercial corridor along 71st Street would profoundly benefit from the proximity to the Library. Unlike the current location in Jackson Park which borders a residential district, the existing 71st Street commercial corridor would more easily allow the beneficial economic impacts to be transferred into the surrounding communities in the form of new restaurants, shops, and jobs. 71st Street could become a bustling commercial corridor again.

Jackson Park was part of Preservation Chicago’s 2017 Most Endangered list.

Additional Reading

Letter to the Editor: Could the Obama Presidential Center be moved several blocks to the south?, Ward Miller, Hyde Park Herald, 5/31/17

Groups Push Back against Obama Library’s Jackson Park Location, WTTW Chicago Tonight, Paris Schutz, 5/23/17

Preservation group proposes moving OPC farther south, Tonia Hill, Hyde Park Herald, May 31, 2017

Column: Tower at Obama center (don’t call it a library) needs tweaking, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 5/5/17

The Obama Center: New Views for Whom?, Zach Mortice Landscape Architecture Magazine, 5/22/17

One Big Problem With Obama’s Presidential Library, CityLab, Kriston Caps, May 5, 2017

Obama Center design: A promising, populist start, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 5/4/17

Blair Kamin’s First Impressions of the Obama Library Plans, WTTW Chicago Tonight, May 5, 2017

South Siders on Obama Library: Listen to Us! Stan West Chicago Defender, May 5, 2017

More Say From the South Side, by Yunhan Wen, South Side Weekly, May 23, 2017

Obama Says Presidential Library Will Be ‘Transformational’ (PHOTOS), Sam Cholke, DNAinfo, 5/3/17

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