Our Pledge To You


Obama Center retooled plans facing Rahm’s City Hall review: Iconic tower taller

The Obama Presidential Center concept model

The Obama Presidential Center concept model, as seen from above and the northwest. Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago. | Obama Presidential Center

WASHINGTON – Plans for the Obama Presidential Center will be filed with City Hall on Wednesday with the iconic museum tower in Jackson Park redrawn to be taller, slimmer and featuring a more welcoming façade.

“The tower is essential to the story we want to tell,” Obama Foundation CEO David Simas told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Both in terms of making it a signature, cultural landmark on the South Side of Chicago and Jackson Park but also symbolically (telling) the story of ascension,” he said.

Simas was talking about knitting together in the presidential complex the inter-related histories of former President Barack Obama and Michelle, the South Side African American community and the U.S. civil rights movement.

The tower, said Simas, is supposed to be “all about inspiration.”

Details and additional renderings of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park have been released. | Obama Presidential Center

Obama, who in 2008 ran on the theme of “hope and change” said in a statement, “the Museum building is a tower, a form representing hope — in particular, the hard-earned hope of what ordinary people have the power to do together.”

Before groundbreaking, anticipated for later this year, the Obama Foundation has to get the development through a series of approvals needed from various City Hall shops, all controlled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first White House chief of staff. Those entities include the Chicago Plan Commission, the Department of Zoning and City Council.

The Obama Center project is also the subject of an ongoing federal review, triggered because Jackson Park, designed by famed landscape architects Frederic Law Olmsted and Calvin Vaux, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The paperwork the Obama Foundation is submitting to the city will be the most detailed information to date about the project.

Since the former president presided over the unveiling of the initial plans for the complex last May, the project has changed, largely a response to community input.

On Monday, the foundation announced that a controversial above-ground garage proposed on the eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance – part of the historic Olmsted South Side park system – would instead be constructed in Jackson Park under the center.

The complex – with a price tag of at least $300 million – consists mainly of four buildings: the tower, a forum, a library and an athletic center, plus a plaza.

The OPC is designed as an open campus integrated into Jackson Park, in the community the Obamas called home. In the concept model the campus is viewed from the southeast. The planned Athletic Center is seen at the bottom left of this image, covered by a green roof. | Obama Presidential Center

The Obamas want their center to spark economic development, be a place for local and global gatherings – and some everyday fun.

The museum and the rest of the campus is being designed to tell the story of the two-terms served by the nation’s first African-American president whose wife was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, the turf where Obama launched his political career.

The buildings, Simas said, “work together in the story the Obamas want to tell.”

Here are details, according to information obtained by the Sun-Times from foundation sources:

THE SITE: The footprint is 19.3 acres in Jackson Park, which was transferred from Chicago Park District control for construction of the presidential center. The four buildings will cover 3.6 acres.

Since May, the foundation architects have repositioned the project.

The south border for the complex in May was 63rd Street or Hayes Drive as it goes through the park. Now it will be 62nd Street.

In May, the development was bounded on the east by Cornell Drive. Now the plans sent to the city show the footprint expanded to take in Cornell – a controversial move.

Olmsted planned roads through the park. Through the years, Cornell has expanded; now it’s up to six lanes.

The foundation and the city want to plow Cornell under and construct new bike and walking paths in its place, connecting with the nearby Museum of Science of Industry. The closing of Cornell, a main traffic artery, has sparked a community outcry.

THE TOWER: The museum building will be 165,000 gross square feet, rising 235 feet above the ground.

In May, architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien showed off an almost windowless, squat monolith with a grim stone façade that was about 180 feet tall.

The current design is more angular, the result of more height and less girth. It will rise for 12 levels: eight main floors and four mezzanines. Another level will be below grade.

Seen here looking out from the planned museum, the three main buildings will form a new public plaza that will serve as another gateway or entry point for the community. | Obama Presidential Center

The structure will contain the museum people will have to pay to visit; some exhibit places that are free; a floor with entertainment space for the foundation that could also be rented to the public; and at the top, “contemplation” areas with views of  Lake Michigan.

The latest version opens up the structure visually.

There will be mesh screens on the south and west faces with the north façade windows and glass. The east side will have some etchings and windows.

THE FORUM: This multi-purpose structure will be 70,000 gross square feet and rise 38 feet above the ground; one level will be below ground. The building will be free to the public and contain a restaurant, a 300-seat auditorium, recording studio and meeting spaces.

THE LIBRARY: This building will contain 50,000 gross square feet and rise 28 feet above the ground, with one floor underground. Do not be confused by the name of this building. The Obama Center will NOT contain an official library that is part of the National Archives and Records Administration presidential library system.

Talks are ongoing between the foundation and the Chicago Public Library to open a branch at the site.

THE PLAZA: The “town square” is in the center of the complex with event and hanging out space. The foundation headquarters will be in offices under the plaza, with light streamed below through light wells.

The lawn at the Obama Presidential Center will double as a sledding hill. | Obama Presidential Center

THE ATHLETIC CENTER: This building will cover 40,000 gross square feet and rise 18 feet above the ground. The structure will be partly “depressed” in the site to allow for high ceilings.

A large, multi-purpose room will provide court space for basketball and other sports, and will be easily converted to serve another role – as a venue for big events.

The cantilever roof will be distinctive: It has a hole in it to allow for a tree.

TREES: Some 300 trees will have to be cut down to clear the park space for the center. The plan is to plant some 400 replacement young trees.

THE BUILDING SKINS: Nothing is for certain yet. But the thought now is for the buildings to be covered in a light-colored variegated stone to produce a warm, creamy effect.

THE LAWYERS: The foundation hired the firm of Neal & Leroy, with Langdon Neal one of the most, as the Sun-Times put it in 2016,  “politically connected lawyers … Neal has made a fortune helping City Hall and other governments condemn land for schools, police stations, McCormick Place, O’Hare Airport expansion.”

Simas said the City Hall filings are a “milestone” in the development of the center but “not an end” of the final design work.

There will be spring Chicago Plan Commission hearings, and the federal review – intended to solicit “adverse effects” of the project in Jackson Park – must also produce solutions to mitigate the major problems.

Over the past year, neighborhood and public land advocacy groups – and in the past few days some University of Chicago faculty members – have raised concerns about the Obama Center, with the discussion prompted at the beginning with its location in a public historic park.

Said Simas, “the community input process does not end.”

The design of the signature 235-foot-tall museum building has been tweaked in the latest renderings. | Obama Presidential Center

A detailed site plan for the Obama Presidential Center is being filed with the city. | Obama Presidential Center