Could the Obama Presidential Center be moved several blocks to the south?

To the Editor:

The announcement of the Obama Presidential Library coming to Chicago was full of excitement and we welcome this new institution and foundation to our city and Chicago’s South Side.

In the process, Chicago was placed in a competition with other cities and places, most notably, New York City and Honolulu, both with connections to former President Obama’s life, and despite a short time of talk of a possible loss to these other cities, Chicago’s South Side in particular, seemed to be on the short list and ultimately won the effort.

We at Preservation Chicago, welcome the Obama Presidential Library and Center to Chicago. However, since the beginning, we have been concerned about constructing a building, or series of buildings, on the site of an internationally recognized park and part of series of parks-Jackson Park, Washington Park and the Midway, by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, perhaps the most recognized landscape architects in the world.

The taking of such special public parklands, belonging to the women, children and people of Chicago has stirred much controversy, about the use of such lands and our treasured parks and park system. This is even more ironic that vacant parcels and adjoining available lands are plentiful near these sites, and perhaps we should be expanding our parks and parklands with new parcels, extending the boundaries of these three parks, with such projects as the Obama Library Center, verses taking lands away for buildings and semi-private use.

The recent unveiling of plans for the new Obama Presidential Library focuses and centers this new institution on axis with the historic Midway Plaisance, which co-joins two historic Olmsted Parks. This is the nexus of the transition between these two historically significant and important parks and also the site of the Women’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition and the adjoining Children’s Building, with the foundations of each of these structures, still located below the soil line and grass. This is important as all of these features could also be considered part of the National Register of Historic Places and documents relating to Jackson Park’s amazing history and legacy.

The Women’s Building was so important on so many levels and designed by architect, Sophia Hayden, her first and only commission, and it was a proud accomplishment of many that lead this effort, to and to have a building dedicated to women, and on such a grand scale. 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, and perhaps not a monument to a man-a gentleman, even if he’s the former President of the United States. To build a series of tall monumental structures on a raised plaza, much like the pyramids of the ancient world, is a bit of a “poke-in-the-eye,” to women around the world, where perhaps a more celebrated monument to women could be designed for the future, and supplemented by the planted garden and the honorary bench, which exist today.

The current site proposed, is most noticeably and basically “an extension of the University of Chicago into Jackson Park,” and with essentially another quadrangle, framed by a series of ancillary buildings, anchored by a tall building-a “Lantern”-but really more of a pyramid-like structure, and similar in height to the very tall Logan Center Building, designed by the same architects. This very tall building at 180′, essentially at 15 to 18 story tall structure, will forever “tower over” Jackson Park, Wooded Island, the Olmsted & Vaux landscape and will be in the viewing field of every visitor in Jackson Park, thereby negatively impacting the sense of a nature experience in the park, where a visitor may escape the busy city and engage, and be one with nature.

That’s part of the beauty of our Chicago parks, also a Chicago Treasure. You see, you don’t need to over-activate these parks, like the downtown Millennium Park and Museum Campus, as these are meant to be special spaces, designed to be enjoyed by people strolling, bikes, a baseball game or two, perhaps a round of golf, carriages now perhaps an automobile and to reconnect us all with nature and the environment. It’s supposed to be a safe, restful and enjoyable and a relaxing place, and something for everyone-a democratic ideal.

Then there’s the proposed discussion and plans relating to the closing of Cornell Drive, which was mistakenly noted at recent press conferences as “added to Jackson Park in 1960,” yet this drive appears in all of the historic plans generated by Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1960, this drive was widened and trees were cut, but this historic drive and pastoral boulevard, was always part of Olmsted’s vision and that feature should perhaps remain as part of the park.

With all of this said, we would like to propose another nearby site for the Obama Library Center, one that will less interrupt the park, reduce the impact on the Olmsted Landscape and also minimize the loss of existing and old-growth trees in Jackson Park.

Could consideration be given to move this proposed center several blocks to the south, along Stony Island Avenue, and situated on the site of the existing and underutilized 63rd Street-Jackson Park Service Yards, older tennis courts, and the Jackson Park Field House, dating from the 1950s? All of these structures are in various states of disrepair, and while still used even in this state of disrepair, could be a footprint for a much needed assembly of new buildings, which could all be part of a more engaging campus connecting the South Shore and Woodlawn communities and become a beacon, beyond the borders of the University.

Such an idea, situated to the south of the existing site, could positively impact Stony Island Avenue, nearby 67th Street as a commercial district, allow for new buildings to replace those that have fallen into disrepair and also make the new Obama Library Center a gateway to Jackson Park, nestled into the landscape in such a way that it would have less of an impact on the Olmsted features of the park. This was also the site of the railroad entry to the Columbia Exposition and it could be a grand access and also on axis with 64th Street, the various nearby schools and much more a part of the Woodlawn and South Shore Communities and perhaps a little less about Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, which really are not in need of a boost of development.

However, this newly proposed site could have many positive benefits that have been touted in the presentation, and much more a community center, and include a fieldhouse, as most Presidential documents will be stored in Washington, D.C., with digital access from this new center.

Most of all, there should be a series of community engagement meetings and hearings, looking to the near future, with robust discussions on what the community residents desire and need. This process should be all inclusive and democratic in every way, with all issues discussed and vetted, realizing the impact of this center, which could be even more amazing if the community process and agreements are discussed, agreed upon and accepted.

Perhaps such discussions should also include perpetual care for Jackson Park, its many features, meadows and paths, which have been overlooked in the past, the restoration of the Comfort Station at 67th Street and Lake Shore Drive, the restoration and reactivation of the Iowa Building and other structures as well. This could all have an amazing impact, beyond displacing nature, relocating expensive and well used football fields and running tracks, which look like new and relocating softball and baseball leagues and their overscheduled fields for new presidential facilities, as part of the complex.

We welcome the conversation over all of these things, which should be addressed. Please let us know if we can help assist to a more community driven and sensitive plan for this new library and center and within an amazing Chicago Treasure, Jackson Park.

Ward Miller
Executive Director of Preservation Chicago, and
former Hyde Park resident