The NAOP Gives Historical Context on Jackson Park

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The NAOP Gives Historical Context on Jackson Park

The NAOP Gives Historical Context on Jackson Park
Jan 26, 2018

Editor’s Note: The following letter was written by representatives of the National Association for Olmsted Parks (NAOP) and submitted to the American Society of Landscape Architects blog “The Dirt” on January 26, 2018. The letter is in response to an article by Jared Green, published on January 23 in “The Dirt,” and to an article by Blair Kamin on January 22 in the Chicago Tribune. Those articles both dealt, to some degree, with questions about the Olmsted-era designs for Jackson Park and, most importantly, the extent to which the park exhibits the intent of those designs today. In addition to the NAOP’s response, three other documents are appended below, each of which speaks to these same questions. Co-author Arleyn Levee is a member of TCLF's Stewardship Council and was a founding member of TCLF's Board.


January 26, 2018

Dear Mr. Green:

Responding to your article - "The Case for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park" - 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.


Chicago South Park Commission, 1871 - Plan shows Jackson Park, Midway Plaisance, and Washington Park

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.

Revised General Plan for Jackson Park, Chicago, IL - 1895

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


Additional materials:

>Jackson Park Design Evolution,” Chicago Park District (1995).

>TCLF’s Section 106 response for Jackson Park (January 3, 2018).

>“Entangled Culture and Nature: Toward a Sustainable Jackson Park in the Twenty-First Century,” in Change Over Time, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2015).