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Smallest Park in the City: 'Man on a Bench'

By Justin Breen | February 6, 2013 6:34am | Updated on February 6, 2013 11:05am

BRONZEVILLE — Chicago's smallest official park holds a big place in the Illinois Institute of Technology campus' heart.

"Man on a Bench" — a sculpture sitting on a bench on a 6-by-9-foot piece of land at IIT since 1986 — has a smaller footprint than two metal picnic benches that rest near it in front of Perlstein Hall.

But the IIT students and faculty have long treasured the figure, which, according to the Chicago Park District "resembles an African-American man who is sitting comfortably on a wooden bench."

"It's just a fabulous thing," said M. Ellen Mitchell, IIT's dean of the College of Psychology.

How the "Man" became a park has a fascinating back story.

 For a recent IIT video competition, the first-place entry consisted, in part, of Stephen Huang dressing up as a monkey and playing guitar to the "Man on a Bench."
For a recent IIT video competition, the first-place entry consisted, in part, of Stephen Huang dressing up as a monkey and playing guitar to the "Man on a Bench."
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In 1986, IIT honored the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Ludwig Miles van der Rohe, who designed several of the school's buildings, by commissioning George Segal to create the "Man on a Bench".

The sculpture — which, according to the Park District, is "composed of bronze sealed with white acrylic resin" — was paid for by the B.F. Ferguson Fund of the Art Institute of Chicago and other major donors.

The Park District became involved because the Ferguson Fund is devoted to works on public lands. So IIT deeded the site to the Park District, which officially calls the sculpture "Park 474."

"It's kind of a goofy thing," said longtime Park District historian Julia Bachrach, an Edgewater resident. "It's not traditionally a park; it's a little unusual."

The "Man" has become woven into life at IIT, not just as a statue, but also as an inspiration, and sometimes for pranks.

In 2007, for then-president Lew Collens' retirement ceremony, Mitchell spent days working on a "Man on a Bench" costume. Before the event, she had facility personnel carry her onto a bench on the stage, with no one else in the crowd of hundreds knowing there was a person in the costume.

About 40 minutes into the event, with Collens sitting next to her, Mitchell broke form and put her hand on his knee.

"He must have jumped three feet in the air!" said Mitchell, who's been at IIT since 1987. "When I took my mask off, nobody believed it was me."

More recently, Stephen Huang dressed up as a monkey and played guitar to the "Man" to win first place in an IIT video competition.

"I wanted to include it because it's part of IIT and something that every IIT student can point out," said Huang, 23, a recent graduate who lives in the South Loop. "I also thought it would be funny showing a monkey playing to an inanimate object."

Not to be outdone, the second-place award for IIT's 2012 Mollie Cohen Prize for Poetry went to Scott Michael Slone, whose title was "The Man on the Bench." One passage reads: "His knowledge gave me success and filled my years, With a joy indescribable."

"It holds a pretty special place here within the community," said Evan Venie, IIT's senior director of communications. "We also tend to talk about it on tours for potential freshmen who come here."

The "Man" undergoes occasional refurbishing, the last coming in 2012, according to Suzie Schnepp, the senior objects conservator of the Art Institute of Chicago, which administrates the Ferguson Fund.

Schnepp, an Andersonville resident, said the sculpture had to be stripped and repainted.

That was good news for the folks at IIT.

"It's such a good neighborhood thing," Mitchell said. "It's sort of a silent community member."