Bill Johnson reflects on contributions to Chicago’s Lakefront

William (Bill) Johnson

Staff Writer

Jackson Park will be a beehive of activity in the coming months and years. A proposal is in the works to renovate and combine two golf courses in Jackson Park and South Shore into a single championship caliber course, which will be situated just a short distance away from the future Barack Obama Presidential Center (OPC).

While the new projects on the horizon will be impactful for the future of the park and the neighborhoods of Woodlawn, South Shore, Hyde Park, and Washington Park, it is also important to consider how the past has influenced and shaped what both the park and the surrounding areas have become.

One key tenet for the Chicago lakefront in much earlier times was that area remains forever open, clear, and free of any buildings, or other construction.

Daniel Burnham, architect and city planner wrote in 1909 in his “Plan of Chicago” that the “lakefront by right belongs to the people. It affords their unobstructed view, stretching away to the horizon, where water and clouds seem to meet.”

William (Bill) Johnson was an architect who played a key role in the late 1960s in shaping design guidelines for 27 miles of Chicago’s lakefront.

Auto traffic at the time during the rush hour had become a problem on South Lake Shore Drive. At the time the city planned to widen the road from 47th to 67th streets, straighten the curve and run it straight through Jackson Park.

According to “Forever Open, Clear and Free: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront” a book written by Lois Wille, tensions were mounting by residents who opposed the extension of the highway through Jackson Park.

Women and children during the summer of 1965 stood between the trees and machines that were on the scene to make room for a roadway. They protested around the stumps from where trees had been initially.

Men and women came to the park day in and day out to protest that referred to themselves as the Daniel Burnham Committee. They were arrested for littering and fined.

The long-term protests were effective. The city halted the roadwork only completing the project half way through the park. Mayor Richard J. Daley set up an advisory council to review the development, and it included prominent architects and urban affairs experts.

Johnson, along with his brother Carl and friend Clarence Roy formed Johnson Johnson and Roy (JJR) in 1961, which is based in Michigan. His firm was recommended by the committee to design a plan for Jackson Park in 1966.

At the time, Lake Shore Drive was partially built but the challenge according to Johnson was to come up with a satisfying solution for all and to not interrupt the peaceful and lush green space.

Johnson and his team decided on a resolution to form an urban arterial roadway instead of a freeway level interchange. He said the key was the intersection of 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive. The intersection would become an urban intersection to coexist with the park so that those entering the park could do so safely and the park itself would essentially be forever open free and clear.

Other recommendations for the plan included underground parking for the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) and overpasses instead of pedestrian tunnels to access the beach.

The project was completed in stages from 1968 to 1970.

Years later, Johnson said he still amazed at how far Jackson Park has come.

“I often come up Stony Island [Avenue] when I visit Chicago, and I am always rather amazed at how the park character has endured even with a lot of traffic,” Johnson said.

Fast-forward to today and projects that have been proposed could once again alter the functionality of the Jackson Park and its beautiful open green space of many uses for relaxation and recreation.

When asked about the upcoming projects in the works for the area Johnson said that community input is key to project proposals in the park.

When he came to Hyde Park in the 1960s, he said he found that Jackson Park was a park of parks meaning that it was not a single park with just one interest.

There were many interests and concerns from the community that he said needed to be taken into consideration.

“What we brought at that stage in the 1960s was the willingness to sit down and hear out the community and understand,” Johnson said.

He said that process is necessary now more than ever as new projects come up for consideration and that the process itself should be open and those outside interests to develop on the open green space should carefully negotiate with the public so that they align with the future aspirations of the community.

In addition to working as an architect, Johnson’s career also showcases a commitment to education. He taught as a professor of landscape architecture beginning in 1958, he served as dean of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan from 1975 to 1983 and became Professor Emeritus in 1988.

Johnson’s practice focuses on campus, resort, and community planning, as well as parks and recreation. Johnson was named a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) in 1973 and awarded the ASLA Medal in 1986.

Johnson currently resides in Holland, Mich. and is working on landscape infrastructure projects.