The University of Chicago recently unveiled its plan to locate the Obama Presidential Library in either Washington or Jackson Parks, both of which were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1870s. Promoting the plans as a way of invigorating the South Side and even adding to the city’s park land, University officials seem to have forgotten that the parks are historic, designed landscapes and works of art in their own right.

Jackson Park Bird Trail, Chicago, Illinois
Jackson Park, bird trail, Chicago, Illinois.

LALH vice president Ethan Carr has spoken out against infringing on the Olmsted designs by destroying park land for a building. As Carr explains, “The park doesn’t need an institution, it is an institution, with a purpose and a design. We’ll lose an historic Olmsted park if we strip it of its purpose by making it the setting for a library.”

Olmsted, Vaux & Co.'s Report Accompanying Plan for Laying Out the South Park
Olmsted, Vaux & Co.’s Report Accompanying Plan for Laying Out the South Park (1871), Chicago, Illinois.

Although the choice to use over twenty acres of park land as a building site appears to have garnered considerable public support, the Chicago Tribune published a January 11th editorial criticizing the choice.  The Tribune noted the importance of revitalizing the South Side, but questioned the value of conscripting “invaluable public space in either of the two parks that are among Chicago’s crown jewels.” LALH Director Robin Karson points to the battles fought over Central Park in the early twentieth century. “If it hadn’t been for Samuel Parsons Jr.” she notes, “Manhattan’s beloved green space would have been lost to speedways, buildings, and who knows what else. Chicago should stand up for its parks.”

The Cultural Landscape Foundation and Chicago’s Friends of the Parks join Karson and Carr, who is also chairman of the board of the National Association for Olmsted Parks, in condemning these sites as possible choices for the presidential library. Share your opinion by adding a comment below.

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