DOWNTOWN — One of Chicago's top architecture aficionados says the city is ignoring an obvious potential site for the proposed Obama Presidential Library: the massive, black McCormick Place structure officially called the Lakeside Center East Building.
Ward Miller, president of Preservation Chicago, previously proposed that the building be considered for George Lucas' Museum of Narrative Art, but with that project now slated for a site just north of McCormick Place, he proposes repurposing the Lakeside Center East Building for President Barack Obama's library.
"It could be a really wonderful site for a big idea like that," Miller said Monday. He called the building "groundbreaking" and "a really incredible building that people have sort of lost sight of."
Considering it still encompasses more than 500,000 square feet on prominent lakefront property at 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive, that's saying something.
Designed by Gene Summers, a student of Mies van der Rohe, and completed in 1971, the building bridged the International Style and the Prairie School with its glass walls and space-frame roof, which covered 19 acres and extended 75 feet beyond the walls thanks to engineering breakthroughs involving a minimal number of massive interior cruciform columns.
Miller recalled driving by the building when it played host to the Boat Show and seeing huge boats, with their sails raised, inside. "You could see a trade show or a convention or a special exhibition from the outside of the building as you were driving past, as well as being inside and seeing the city and the lakefront," he said.
The most recent "AIA Guide to Chicago" praises the architectural achievement, but criticizes the vast interior space as overwhelming and uninviting to visitors. Yet Miller said that is precisely what would make it a big, blank slate for a project like the Obama library.
"That Lakeside building would really lend itself well to a lot of different ideas and exhibitions," Miller said. "It's a prominent lakefront site, and you could really do a lot of things inside that building, and again all the resources and money that would be raised would go to exhibitions and endowments and other things rather than buildings, which are so outrageously expensive."
Miller also cited the extensive parking beneath the building and the Arie Crown Theatre inside.
The Barack Obama Foundation assigned to select a site for the library has received seven proposals, five from Chicago, including one from the University of Chicago, one from the University of Illinois at Chicago, one for Pullman, one for the former site of Michael Reese Hospital and one for the abandoned former home of the U.S. Steel South Works.
Miller said the Lakeside East building could conceivably complement the Michael Reese site.
"You could still have your iconic new building," he added, while holding major events in the McCormick Place building or the Arie Crown. Yet his preference would be for the library to be housed within the existing structure.
An Obama Foundation spokesperson declined to comment on Miller's individual proposal, saying, "Responses to the Request for Qualifications were due on June 16, and the foundation is planning to identify a short list of entities to receive the Request for Proposal, or RFP, later this summer." Yet the University of Chicago proposal, for one, has not yet specified a site, a step that would no doubt be taken with the response to the RFP.
City officials have said the big building is still needed for the larger conventions, but Miller said even the American Institute of Architects convention held recently at McCormick Place tended to use only the Arie Crown for major events, with other meetings scheduled in the newer McCormick Place buildings west of Lake Shore Drive.
"No doubt the city is still using the Lakeside building," he added. "I'm not saying it's not used. It's just my personal opinion from what I've seen over time that it's underutilized."
The Mayor's Press Office did not respond to requests for comment.
Miller also pointed out using an existing building would leave the city's footprint along the lakeshore unchanged, thus avoiding any disputes over lakefront access and the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, adding, "I think we should be very careful about what we put on our parkland."
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