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Lucas Museum Could Be Shifted To McCormick Place Under Plan Mulled By Rahm

By  Ted Cox and David Matthews | April 15, 2016 8:54am | Updated on April 15, 2016 3:08pm

 The Lucas Museum as it could look near McCormick Place.
The Lucas Museum as it could look near McCormick Place.
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Lucas Museum of Narrative Art

CITY HALL — The Lucas Museum could be shifted to the site of McCormick Place's gargantuan Lakeside East Building, according to reports out of City Hall.

Yet the proposal faces the possibility of not only renewed opposition from Friends of the Parks, but also the ire of architecture aficionados set on preserving the 45-year-old building.

The Sun-Times' Fran Spielman reported late Thursday that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has held formal talks with city officials and George Lucas and Mellody Hobson on the switch in locations, clearly intended to get around a lawsuit filed against the museum by Friends of the Parks against the plan to build it on a lakefront parking lot just north of McCormick.

Exec. Dir. of Preservation Chicago says the building is 'architecturally significant.'

The Mayor's Press Office confirmed "ongoing conversations" with Lucas and Hobson on Friday.

Mayoral spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said talks are "aimed at making sure the Lucas Museum, and the cultural and educational opportunities it would offer, remains here in Chicago. And while no decisions have been made," she added, "we have long agreed that the Lucas Museum would be an incredible addition to Chicago’s Museum Campus."

Hobson too issued a statement welcoming the proposal.

"We remain hopeful about building the museum in the city of Chicago," she said. "Similar to the current parking-lot site, we believe McCormick Place would be an excellent location and extends the already world-class museum campus on Chicago's lakefront to the South Side. We appreciate the outpouring of support that we've received from the people of Chicago."

The museum's potential neighbors on the Museum Campus also lined up in support. "Since the beginning, our museum group has supported efforts to welcome this new world-class museum to Chicago," said Gary T. Johnson, president of the Museums in the Park Association. "The new proposal to replace McCormick Place East with the Lucas Museum on a portion of that site is an intriguing one, worthy of serious and open-minded consideration by all concerned. The proposal offers the possibility of a location for the Lucas Museum on our existing museum campus that would dramatically add to the green space along the lakefront."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. chimed in as well, calling the museum a "once-in-a-generation gift to the people of Chicago."

"The delays and debate about this project must stop immediately," he added. "This gift from George Lucas and Mellody Hobson will create thousands of construction jobs, generate tens of millions of dollars in contracts for minority-owned businesses and nearly 400 full-time, permanent jobs that will pay strong wages and help buy homes, cars and send children to college.

Jackson said the museum will also offer "educational benefits that will fire up the imagination of our city’s children who need these opportunities more than ever. I strongly endorse this wonderful project. It’s time for the obstruction to end and the construction to begin."

Lucas selected the Chicago lakefront as the site for his Museum of Narrative Art almost two years ago. It was planned to showcase his collection of storytelling art ranging from his "Star Wars" movies and other films to cartoons, comic strips and Norman Rockwell paintings.

Yet Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, raised immediate objections, saying, "This is really an idea that hasn't been thought out very well."

Friends of the Parks, which filed the lawsuit that led the city to pursue alternatives to the museum's location on a Soldier Field parking lot, said it will "discuss and analyze" the McCormick Place proposal. 

“Friends of the Parks appreciates that the City of Chicago finally reached out to us yesterday with the mayor’s new idea for the Lucas Museum," Lauren Moltz, board chairwoman, said in a statement. “Friends of the Parks will continue in our commitment to preserve, protect, promote and improve the use of our parks and in our historic role in upholding the principles that have fostered the jewel of a lakefront that we all enjoy.”

The Lakeside Center building was completed in 1971 and replaced the original McCormick Place, which had burned down four years before. Designed by architect Gene Summers, it melded Mies van der Rohe's International Style in its stark, basic construction with the horizontal orientation of the Prairie School. It was originally the city's main convention space, but has been used less and less in recent years as McCormick Place has expanded with newer buildings west of Lake Shore Drive.

Yet, according to Miller, its vast spaces inside and stark look outside make it a perfect blank slate for Lucas' museum.

"There's no doubt that this building is more stealth-looking and more 'Star Wars'-appealing that any other building of its type," Miller said. "Not only do we have the big rooms upstairs and the huge convention hall, but you also have convention facilities below and under that is the parking, so you really have a whole series of convention spaces that really would repurpose themselves nicely for any type of retrofitting as needed.

"In Paris, they turn train stations into galleries of the Louvre. Why not be at the forefront of architectural redesign and reuse?" Miller added. "It would be on the cover of every art magazine around the globe."

According to the Sun-Times' City Hall sources, the south end of the Lakeside building, including the Arie Crown Theater, would be demolished to create a 12-acre footprint for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. The Sun-Times reports grew out of Emanuel's schedule, released through Freedom of Information Act requests, showing he had met with top aides in mid-March on a "museum update," a week after a meeting at Ariel Investments, where Hobson is president.

A federal judge has rejected city arguments to quash the Friends of the Parks lawsuit, and Emanuel has said it jeopardizes the museum, which could be lost to another city.

"My goal is to keep the museum here," Emanuel has said.

The City Council formally signed off on it in October, but Judge John Darrah has barred construction pending the outcome of the suit.

Building on the McCormick Place Lakeside Center site would seemingly address the suit, but Friends of the Parks could also argue that, if that building is to be demolished in total or in part, it should return to parkland.

Sources at Friends of the Parks said last week they'd heard of the plan to shift the Lucas Museum to McCormick Place, but they did not state a position on whether the group would support the move or not.

Without rattling preservationist sabers on his own, Miller doubted Friends of the Parks would ultimately endorse the McCormick Place plan, saying, "If you were to demolish this and build a new building on the lakefront, you don't think that every park advocate, every lakefront advocate would be in favor of removing it all and never building on it again?"

Miller already has suggested placing the Lucas Museum at McCormick Place, but as a way of preserving the Lakeside Center building, not demolishing it. It's currently on the group's list of "Chicago's 7" buildings most in danger and in need of preservation.

"I would appeal to George Lucas and Mellody Hobson to come and talk with our organizations and the city and really work out a spectacular plan that would take advantage of a remarkably architecturally significant building," Miller said.

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