It started as a marshy, wind-swept no man’s land―not a place you would imagine as the site for the World’s Columbian Exhibition or, over a century later, a presidential library. It took a lot of time and vision from one man, Frederick Law Olmsted, to turn Jackson Park into the beautiful gardens and lagoons it became in 1893.
Olmsted’s initial skepticism of the Jackson Park site―its unforgiving landscape lacked drainage―would be overcome by its setting on the lake. “There is but one object of scenery near Chicago of special grandeur or sublimity, and that, the lake, can be made by artificial means no more grand or sublime. The lake, may, indeed, be accepted as fully compensating for the absence of sublime or picturesque elevations of land,” he contemplated.
Surveying the park today, it’s easy to appreciate Olmsted’s vision. Families stroll its winding pathways, groups of students walk in menacing masses to and from the Museum of Science and Industry. In the middle of a series of lagoons, the newly renovated Garden of the Phoenix is a quiet, serene paradise for an elderly man who stands watching as a crane floats over the surface of the lagoon. Beyond extends the vibrant Lake Michigan, resilient as the park evolves over time.
The park design began in 1869, but the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 interrupted work until 1890, when its selection as the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition reignited the project. Olmsted intended to evoke emotion through the park’s natural beauty, which to enhance he designed a series of lagoons, islands, and gardens hemmed in on one side by Lake Michigan. On a sunny Thursday afternoon in 2019, his efforts are still admired. “I like the water, I like the way that you have the little island in the middle where the Japanese Garden is, and you have these little lakes around it,” says Torsten, a professor in town from Berlin to attend a conference at the University of Chicago. “There is a lot of water, but the paths somehow lead off in a way that you actually get very close to it but at the same time can be in the shade of the trees.”
The World’s Fair ultimately consisted of 200 buildings, and hosted 27 million visitors from May to October of 1893. When the fair closed that autumn, there was no plan for future use of the buildings. The debate had started before the fair over how to use land whose charter required it remain “free to all persons forever,” yet no solid plans immediately emerged. After several small fires destroyed many of the buildings, homeless people moved into the neglected area. In 1894 a large fire beat the wrecking company to the site.
The Palace of Fine Arts and the beautiful series of lagoons and gardens remained. The first public golf course west of the Allegheny Mountains opened on the grounds in 1899, a decision that democratized the sport in Chicago. In 1933 the Museum of Science and Industry opened in the Fine Arts building where it remains to this day.
Current plans for the Obama Presidential Center will once again make Jackson Park a gathering place attracting people from all over the world. Plans for three main buildings―a forum, museum, and library―will provide a place for people to learn and create. The Museum will focus on the presidency and lives of the Obamas within the context of American, African-American, and Chicagoan history.
The Center is expected to create new jobs in the South Side, while drawing visitors to Chicago and “giving new life to Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of a cohesive, walkable, and iconic Jackson Park,” writes the Obama Foundation. In keeping with the spirit of the park, most of the center will remain free and open to the public and will include a program and athletic center with a community-facing public plaza in the middle.
“Right now the kids are unable to go to the parks like they used to when I was younger in the inner city,” remarks Cory, on his way from work at the museum to take his daughter out for her birthday. “I think [the Center] would be an opportunity for them to actually be able to get out more to go to a library…it will give them something to do, somewhere to go to play, activities to do to get off the streets. I think it will be good for this area.”
The main museum building will be a tower with four different facades, inspired by a photo of four hands coming together “representing ascension, hope, and the power ordinary people have to change history when they work together,” writes the Foundation. “Like these hands, each facade of the four-sided tower will be a little different from the next—enhanced with texture and detail, and offering a beautiful and unique experience from all angles.”
Despite the Center’s promise to revitalize the South Side, some are skeptical, including those who question using a public park for a private foundation, and those who worry the Center will change or destroy much of Olmsted’s natural landscape design. The Center will differ from all previous presidential libraries in two regards: it will not house an on-site research library or store Obama’s physical presidential records (which will be digitized), and it will be funded and run by a private non-profit foundation instead of by the National Archives and Records Administration, which has administered the libraries and museums for all presidents going back to Herbert Hoover.
A lawsuit brought last May by Protect our Parks―a group of Chicago preservationists hoping to halt construction of the Center―was allowed to proceed. While legal proceedings continue, so does the evolution of Jackson Park’s legacy.