A quiet tour of Jackson Park turns into debate over merits of OPC

JPAC President Louise McCurry (second from left) debates points with Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago (right) over opposing views on future plans for Jackson Park, the proposed site for Obama Presidential Center. (Photo by Mrinalini Pandey)

(Editor’s note: This is a corrected version of the earlier story.)

Contributing writer

Preservation Chicago’s neighborhood walking tour, intended to focus on the historic and endangered landmarks of Woodlawn and Jackson Park, turned into something of a Saturday morning debate over the relative merits of constructing the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.

Several would-be walkers gathered in Women’s Garden of Jackson Park on Saturday where they were greeted by Ward Miller, Preservation Chicago’s executive director; Mary Lu Seidel, Preservation’s director of community engagement; and volunteer tour guide, Mike Medina.

Preservation Chicago is an activist advocacy organization that works towards the preservation of historic architectures and urban spaces throughout Chicago. In March, the organization had listed Jackson Park (proposed site for the OPC) as one of Chicago’s seven most endangered skites.

Commenting about the “first lake front parks,” Miller described Jackson Park as one of the “jewels of Chicago. Stretching across 500 acres, Jackson Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and was the site for World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. In 1972, Jackson Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The tour started on the western edge of the Women’s Garden on the Midway Plaisance and then

continued to the base of the Darrow Bridge. Standing with the group looking over the large lagoon behind the Museum of Science and Industry, (a scene Miller describes as “the perfect setting to escape from city life and be in nature”), Miller recounted the history of MSI. He said the building was one of the buildings constructed at the time out of temporary materials, and subsequently rebuilt using permanent materials. After the World’s Fair, it briefly housed the historic Columbian Field Museum and continues to remain a prominent landmark of Chicago.

Another legacy that remains from the late 19th century is the Clarence Darrow Memorial bridge, named after the famous Chicago lawyer. Miller informed the tour walkers that parts of the historic bridge predated the 1893 Exposition and even though it is in a state of terrible disrepair and closed to the public, he is hopeful that the original haunch-stone shape can be restored to rebuild the bridge.

For Miller and Seidel, the parks and the architecture around it represent historic pride and nostalgia that is worth preserving. Throughout the tour, Miller and Seidel enumerated of their past efforts to save historic landmark buildings in Chicago, latest being the Shrine of Christ the King church in Woodlawn that was proposed for demolition after the fire in 2015 but was saved through the efforts of Preservation

Chicago and other organizations and partially rebuilt by the community. Miller and his organization take a similar stand on proposed plans for OPC. Although not opposed to OPC itself, Miller described the current OPC plans as “heavy-handed” and expressed concerns about redeveloping Jackson Park and the impact that OPC may have on the historical park. In addition, he informed the tour walkers, many of whom were visiting from other neighborhoods of Chicago, about Section 106 hearings about the impact of OPC plans. Miller believes that the park must be preserved and the OPC plans of altering the site to add new structures are in direct conflict of the original Olmstead design of the park.

President of the Jackson Park Advisory Council (JPAC), Louise McCurry, and Mary Anton, another longtime community member, had joined the tour. They vehemently disagreed with Miller’s view , providing other walkers with a different perspective that OPC will strengthen the “social fabric and economic value” of the community and that any efforts to derail OPC from moving forward would deny the community members the benefits and opportunities that the OPC would bring.

McCurry, who takes pride in being an active resident and advocate of Hyde Park, wants to ensure that the community members reap benefits of their community and views OPC plans as a means to creating those opportunities. McCurry’s philosophy towards change seems in stark contrast to Miller’s sense of nostalgia preservation of historic artifacts.

Mary Anton. another long-time resident of the community echoed McCurry’s thoughts. Both Anton and McCurry cherish the landmarks in Jackson Park and express their concern for the changes to the landscape that OPC construction might bring, but they maintain it is in the best interests of the community in terms of economics and resources.

Miller contended that the new buildings in the OPC plans would impact the view of the park taking away its naturalistic character. McCurry and Anton responded that the proposed OPC tower will be 50 feet shorter than the apartment building on the corner of 56th Street and Cornell Avenue.

Despite intermittent clashing of opinions, hushed chatter amongst the tour walkers, and robust debate around what is worth preserving and what is worth pursuing, Seidel managed to diffuse the tension and keep the walking tour largely about “seeing the sites.”