Jackson Park, looking north, 2017. Museum of Science and Industry upper right, 2017. Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation © Steven Vance

SWEET: Landscape group warns Obama Center ‘adverse effects’ in Jackson Park

SHARE SWEET: Landscape group warns Obama Center ‘adverse effects’ in Jackson Park
SHARE SWEET: Landscape group warns Obama Center ‘adverse effects’ in Jackson Park

WASHINGTON — The federal government has invited comments on “adverse effects” the Obama Presidential Center may have on Jackson Park and a leading landscape advocacy group has three big ones: the planned iconic high-rise tower; the proposed closing of Cornell Drive and not taking into account the historic Frederick Law Olmsted designs for the related Midway Plaisance and Washington Park.

The closing of Cornell has sparked an enormous community outcry.

Obama Center architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the Obama Foundation and City Hall are pushing strongly to get rid of the roadway.

But closing a road winding through Jackson Park imposes their vision — not that of Olmsted, the famed landscape architect.

Olmsted’s design “was intended to lead visitors on a choreographed journey through passages of landscape scenery. Neither the location nor the disposition of the roads were accidental,” wrote Charles Birnbaum, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Cultural Landscape Foundation in a submission for the federal review.


These three South Side parklands have a history stretching back to 1869, when the Illinois General Assembly carved out 1,055 acres for permanent open space. Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, already known for Central Park in New York, completed their designs for the Chicago parks in 1871. Jackson and Washington parks were connected via the Midway.

Just a small history sampling here: The World’s Columbian Exposition was staged in Jackson Park and the Midway in 1893, where Olmsted worked with the famed architect Daniel Burnham. Olmsted and his team designed the post-fair landscape restoring the parks, with the only major building to be — deliberately — what today is known as the Museum of Science and Industry.

Olmsted in all crafted three designs for the park with key principles of his designs still intact.

Jackson Park and the Midway were listed on the federal National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Washington Park was added to the register in 2004.

In his last year in office, then-President Barack Obama in 2016 announced Jackson Park as the site of his presidential center, which triggered federal reviews that are ongoing now.

In December, under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy Act, federal reviews kicked off to discover potential “adverse effects” from the projects. Comments about potential “adverse effects” must be submitted by Friday to City Hall’s Department of Planning and Development.


The Cultural Landscape Foundation, based in Washington, said the major adverse effects are the high-rise tower on the Center campus, the proposed road closing and the lack of looking at the changes holistically — how they impact the entire park systems.

The scope of the federal review needs to be expanded to include the entire Midway and Washington Park, the foundation said in its submission. Now just a patch of the Midway is included — where the Obama Foundation wants to build a garage.

“The need to fully recognize the unity of the South parks is now brought into greater relief by the current proposal to impose a parking garage at the eastern terminus and hinge point of the Midway Plaisance, effectively placing a further barrier to the connection that Olmsted and Vaux first envisioned,” Birnbaum said.

Williams and Tsien have made the signature centerpiece of the Obama campus a mostly windowless high-rise tower that will house the museum. It is nicknamed the “lantern.”

The barren monolithic walls, which make for a bleak streetscape, are necessary because “museums don’t want windows,” Tsien said at an Oct. 31 briefing.

“Moreover, the (presidential center) tower, as currently conceived, would adversely affect viewsheds from the full expanse of the Midway Plaisance, not just from the portion of it now included” in the review, Birnbaum said.

Said Birnbaum: “The imposition of a massive high-rise tower, hundreds of feet tall . . . is directly contrary to the overall concept of the park.”

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