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Obama Library Site Has Heritage of Innovation, Protest And Mud Pits

By Sam Cholke | August 2, 2016 8:17am

WOODLAWN — Barack Obama has passed over the city’s only tree arboretum for his presidential library, but has chosen a site just as historic in Jackson Park.

The Obama Foundation announced last week it will bypass Washington Park to build the president’s library on 21 acres of Jackson Park across from Hyde Park High School, 6220 S. Stony Island Ave.

By picking Jackson Park, the foundation avoids issues with the proposed site in Washington Park, which contained the city’s only tree arboretum and oaks that are older than the park itself. Instead the foundation has launched itself into a history of controversial architecture, protest and people running in circles or getting stuck in the mud.

RELATED: Obama Library Coming To Woodlawn: 'Congratulations To Jackson Park'

Newcomers to the neighborhood will only know the future home of the library as a football field and a running track with a small restroom and playgrounds on the northern edge of the area bounded by Stony Island Avenue, Cornell Drive, 60th and 63rd streets. But the track was built only recently, in 2011, through a grant from the Chicago Bears and the Pritzker Foundation, and the area was heavily used during the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Louis Sullivan was trying to push American architecture into its own with his design for the Transportation Building during the Columbian Exposition. [Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum]

During the fair, the southern end of the site was dominated by the five-acre Transportation Building. The building’s multicolored facade and massive gilded arch were an oddity in the “White City” and were architect Louis Sullivan’s attempt to accelerate American architecture past the staid traditions of Europe and into its own, according to a history of the fair collected by the University of Virginia.

Just to the north, composer Margaret Lang debuted “Witichis” in the Choral Hall months after she became the first woman composer to have a piece performed by an American symphony, according to the Library of Congress’ “Performing Arts Encyclopedia.”

The Horticulture Building dominated much of the site for the Obama library during the World's Columbian Exposition. [Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum]

Continuing north was Horticulture Hall. The hall was nearly as large as the transportation building and contained eight greenhouses topped by a 180-foot dome, more than 16,000 varieties of orchids and recreations of a Mexican desert and Japanese garden, according to the University of Virginia.

Visitors to the fair would have next walked past statues of William Penn and the on-site hospital before coming to the Children’s Building, according to Ray Johnson of Friends of the White City.

The burgeoning ideas of kindergarten and children’s playgrounds were pitched to visitors as they dropped their kids off at the fair’s day care, according to a history by Brigid Beaubien of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

"Buffalo" Bill Cody made enough money to found Cody, Wyoming, by holding his wild west show where Hyde Park High School now stands during the World's Columbian Exposition. [Courtesy of the Library of Congress]

Cody, Wyoming, might not exist if not for the Obama library site as well.

On a vacant lot where Hyde Park High School now stands, "Buffalo" Bill Cody staged his wild West show just outside the fair grounds after feuding with fair organizers about splitting proceeds, according to a recently unearthed history by Matt Braun for "True West." Braun estimates Cody made $30 million in today's dollars from that single run of shows, which he used to found his namesake town in Wyoming.

A bird's eye view of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition

So it might be appropriate that the site is steeped in a history of innovative architecture and a mindfulness toward kids and the environment. But it also has a heritage of people finding themselves running in circles.

After the fair closed, the area was converted in 1895 to a large outdoor gymnasium circled by a running track that was quickly taken over by the rising sport of bicycling as the area begins to become Jackson Park, according to Gary Ossewaarde, of the Jackson Park Advisory Council.

By 1903, most of the park was established and the area was fixed as the spot for baseball diamonds and other athletic fields.

Louise McCurry, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, and others from the council said the fields in the 1970s were constantly in disrepair from trucks driving over them and football equipment being brought in and out for Hyde Park High School.

The track was rebuilt in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2011 that many of the issues with the area being a mud pit were finally resolved.

There is only one last item of neighborhood history the Obama Foundation will have to contend with:

The site’s eastern boundary of Cornell Drive is still a symbol of the length Hyde Parkers are willing to go to protect any plans that threaten the park.

In 1959, when Mayor Richard J. Daley wanted to divert Lake Shore Drive through Jackson Park, Hyde Parkers staged seven years of protests, chaining themselves to trees and other efforts that eventually forced the mayor to back down.

The north bridge to Wooded Island in the park is named for Nancy Hays, one of the “Jackson Park Seven,” who were arrested for chaining themselves to trees in 1965 to unsuccessfully prevent the widening of Cornell Drive.

This rendering by the University of Chicago shows what Stony Island Avenue could look like if the Obama library is built in Jackson Park. [Courtesy of the University of Chicago]

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