The Case for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park

Eight months after former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama revealed their vision for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park, on the south side of Chicago, the Obama Foundation has released more detailed plans and designs, which they say are the result of thousands of comments. The new plans are perhaps also a response to criticism that the Presidential Center “confiscates” some 19 acres of the historic, Olmsted-designed 543-acre Jackson Park, and, therefore, a parking structure planned for the nearby Midway Plaisance would further undermine the park’s integrity. The Obama Foundation has since scrapped plans for the parking structure in favor of adding parking underneath the Center.

Amid new calls by park advocates and a faculty group at the University of Chicago to move the Presidential Center out of Jackson Park, the design team — which is led by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and includes Interactive Design Architects (IDEA), Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), Site Design Group, and Living Habitats — continues to move through the process, honing the plans and designs, with the goal of building the $500-million project by 2021.

Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, lead landscape architect on the project, told us criticism that the Obama Presidential Center destroys the landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. is incorrect. “There is a complete failure to recognize the history of the 19 acres in question, particularly with respect to Olmsted and Vaux. The Jackson Park — as designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. and Calvert Vaux — was never actually fully realized. Then, the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition came in, and Jackson Park was nearly destroyed. The design evolved with guidance from Olmsted Sr., but not Vaux. One of Olmsted’s successor firms, headed up by his sons, created a revised plan for the park in 1895, the same year FLO Sr. retired from practice. Olmsted Sr. kept the lagoons intact as did the sons in the 1895 plan. Many of FLO Sr’s big ideas persist in that version of Jackson Park, but given the history, you have to be misguided to argue the landscape between Cornell Drive and Stony Island Avenue is in any way an intact Olmsted Sr. landscape. Or that its current configuration and character is fundamental to our ability to appreciate Olmsted Sr’s. vision for a very large, very watery park.”

Jackson Park aerial view / Chicago Construction News

Furthermore, Van Valkenburgh argued, the Obama Foundation’s plans will yield usable new landscape. “With the new Presidential Center, we will remove the 6-lane Cornell Drive, which, today, horrendously cuts off part of the park where the OPC is proposed, leaving it as an isolated triangle. The removal of Cornell Drive is a major restoration of the 1895 plan— and makes connections through Jackson Park towards the adjacent Lagoon and on to Lake Michigan. Also, the OPC will create accessible new park land, as part of the MVVA site strategy that embeds two of the new buildings entirely under new landscape on the east and south sides towards Jackson Park.” The design team contends there will be a net-gain in park land.

Cornell Drive and proposed site of Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park / The Chicago Tribune

Van Valkenburgh believes the landscape design realizes the goals of the Obamas: to make the Center as green and open as possible, so the entire experience feels like an urban public park. “Again, the organizing idea was to cluster the three Center buildings and embed two of them in park land, so we can keep the amount of paved surfaces to under a couple of acres.”

Obama Presidential Center embedded in the landscape / Obama Foundation, DBOX

The Obama Foundation and the design team want to create a new woodland walk, sledding hill, playground, athletic center, lawns, and community vegetable garden for school kids to grow and eat fresh produce. The garden helps continue “Mrs. Obama’s mission of food and wellness.” These new features are set within a landscape designed to sustainably manage water.

Woodland Walk / Obama Foundation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Sledding hill / Obama Foundation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Playground / Obama Foundation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

“The Obamas were married in the park. And they lived a few blocks away from it for years. They are committed to opening up the Center into the civic and public realm.”

For more perspective, read the take of Blair Kamin, The Chicago Tribune‘s architecture critic, who largely supports the approach of the design team, but calls for the designs to further evolve, that of Jackson Park Watch, which calls for slower and more comprehensive planning with deeper community involvement, and that of Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), who calls for moving the Center out of the park (and also disagrees with Kamin). Lastly, read more on demands that the Obama Foundation sign a community benefits agreement, which they have so far refused to do.

4 thoughts on “The Case for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park

  1. Jared Green 01/26/2018 / 1:24 pm

    January 26, 2018

    Dear Mr. Green:

    Responding to your article in “The Dirt” of January 23, 2018 (subsequently updated at least five times), we would like to make the following observations:

    1. While the video embedded in this article with former President Obama articulating the very noble aims for his Presidential Center (OPC) is indeed inspiring, unfortunately it fails to address the very fundamental question: Why does such a multi-dimensional institution HAVE TO BE located on historic parkland dedicated in perpetuity to open space and recreational opportunities for all?

    As many others have pointed out, there are certainly other land holdings within the bounds of Chicago’s South Side, some even abutting the historic South Park complex, that would equally meet or exceed the requirements for such an elevated architectural campus intended as the beacon of change, education, and rejuvenation for the city. And as some 200 University of Chicago faculty have pointed out in their open letter, other South Side locations are demonstrably better locations to benefit from the “economic engine” that the OPC promises to be. For all the skilled planners engaged in this endeavor, successfully weaving this campus and its ancillary needs, such as parking, into the fabric of the South Side without the present “parkland grab” would seem a challenge worthy of their talents.

    2. We take issue with several of Mr. Van Valkenburgh’s assertions concerning the Olmsted & Vaux and the Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot planning for what became Jackson Park.

    In the first place, asserting that the original 1871 plan was never fully realized due to the economic woes besetting Chicago after the 1871 fire does nothing to negate that the Olmsted and Vaux plan was thoughtfully crafted to bring elements of nature into this originally swampy venue, with its scenic lakeside potential to benefit the health and the spirits of the hard-working citizenry in a rapidly industrializing city.

    Second, as Mr. Van Valkenburgh well knows, as someone who considers himself a student of Olmsted’s philosophy and work, the “White City of 1893” was greatly tempered by the green, scenic ameliorations that Olmsted insisted upon to counteract its Beaux-Arts grandeur. Knowing the Olmsted firm’s working methods, it is to be expected that the planning concepts developed for the Exposition would also contain those ideas to remediate the site, once the temporary plastered edifices constructed for the Exposition were removed, to bring back parkland intended for public use. That this intention was slow to be accomplished was due to the national economic recession in the years following 1893. But the ideas for what became the 1895 plan by the Olmsted firm were undoubtedly embedded in that process.

    Third, as with all great design offices, of which the Olmsted firm was the first, there were many hands and minds in collaboration, creating and refining such major commissions as the Exposition planning and the subsequent park redesign. John Charles Olmsted, a partner in the firm, worked alongside his father and his colleague and partner, Henry Codman, from the outset to bring forth the ingenious landscape solutions for the Exposition and for the future of the site. Indeed, the younger Olmsted was the recipient of an Exposition medal at the successful completion of the event. Charles Eliot entered the firm as a partner in 1893 following the untimely death of Codman, thus forming the Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot firm. (The assertion that this successor firm was headed by Olmsted’s “sons” is quite inaccurate, as Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., was still a student at Harvard at this time.) That the name was changed to reflect the retirement of Olmsted, Sr., in no way indicated a reduction of design and intellectual rigor at the helm of the firm. The senior Olmsted continued to be a creative force, even as he was plagued by the ill health that brought about his retirement in mid-1895; but his partners were well versed (and trained) in his aesthetic principles and sustained the integrity of his vision of comprehensive design into what became a remarkably long-lived professional practice. The succeeding partners likewise continued Olmsted, Sr.’s innovative planning, responsive to the diverse demands of Chicago’s and the nation’s changing populations.

    Finally, apropos of the innovative approach of the Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot plan for Jackson Park, it was disappointing to read Mr. Van Valkenburgh’s opinion that one would be “dumb as dirt to argue the landscape between Cornell Drive and Stony Island Avenue is in any way an intact Olmsted Sr. landscape” (as was included in versions three through five of the mercurial article). The landscape between Cornell Drive and Stony Island Avenue was the site for the men’s and women’s outdoor gymnasia, separated by a children’s playground, that can be seen clearly on the 1895 plan. As a historical assessment of Jackson Park produced by the Chicago Park District (CPD) in 1995 indicates, such gymnasia were relatively new in the United States, with Olmsted writing that “similar gymnasia proved very successful in Europe and in Boston” (Olmsted A39: 20, 704). The Boston reference is to an open-air gymnasium—considered to be the first in a public park in the United States—that Olmsted installed at Charlesbank Park, along the shores of the Charles River, in 1887. The 1995 CPD assessment goes on to say:

    The outdoor gymnasia area was one of the first sections of Jackson Park to be improved following the adoption of the Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot plan. The gravel used for grading and surfacing the outdoor gymnasia were taken from the World’s Fair walks (SPC Annual Report 1894-5, 8). Soon after the outdoor gymnasia were opened to the public, the gravel running tracks began to be used as bicycle tracks (Report of SPC 1895, 9).

    The outline of the north gymnasium is today expressed in the footprint of the oval football field beside Stony Island Avenue, and the current walking paths directly opposite East 62nd Street reflect those encircling the children’s playground in the 1895 plan. The extent to which any landscape designed over a century ago remains “intact” today is, of course, debatable. But the echoes of the 1895 plan still visible between Cornell Drive and Stony Island Avenue are important vestiges of an Olmsted design that would be entirely obliterated by the OPC, Mr. Van Valkenburgh’s rather intemperate comment about the intelligence of dirt notwithstanding.


    Arleyn Levee and Lucy Lawliss, Co-Chairs
    National Association for Olmsted Parks

  2. Barrett Doherty 01/26/2018 / 3:05 pm

    This video illustrates the main point of the comment, nicely.

  3. Gus Drum 02/02/2018 / 9:41 pm

    A very compelling case Mr. VV makes for siting the Obama Center in Jackson Park, nice graphics and good text, however I have to side with Mses Lawliss and Levee and their well written rebuttal regarding the appropriateness of using an Olmsted park for such a facility. The co-chairs bring up several good reasons why such a facility should not be placed there and in view of the other site options for the Center, I’m convinced that elsewhere might be better.
    One point not being taken into account in this design discussion is the precedence such use of a classic urban park would set. Should the OPC be sited in Jackson Park as proposed, what calamity and uproar will take place among the design professions in say 5 or 9 years hence should our current president decide to place his Presidential Library in……wait for it………….Central Park. Given the precedence set by the current proposal to use Jackson Park, why couldn’t the TPL be sited in his home city park? I can’t wait to hear the principle in charge of a major Landscape Architectural firm in NYC explain why placing another magnificent architectural work of art within the hallowed confines of Mr. Olmsted’s signature piece of landscape architecture is OK. Food for thought people.

    • David 02/04/2018 / 7:13 am

      A voice of reason in a sea of lickspittles. There really is no end to filling up parks with memorials as London’s Victoria Tower Garden, Hyde Park and Green Park are tiresomely becoming testament to. Another statue? Why not? Murdered by Jihadi’s; clear some space for a memorial, some forgotton war-heroes? Got just the place. Didn’t get round to a holocasut memorial? Thats ok no-one needs a children’s playground anyway. You see in the modern world parks are for politics not people.

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