Few non-buildings have an architectural pedigree that can match Chicago’s Jackson Park. The heavily forested park was originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, and initially realized by Burnham and Root for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. As the home to the White City, architects from around the world flocked to the park to witness the spectacle. One anecdote states that Frank Lloyd Wright’s obsession with Japan was started upon seeing the Japanese Ho-o-Den (Phoenix Temple) at the exhibition. In the time since then, the park has gone through phases of purposeful neglect and vandalism. It has only been in recent years that a true concerted effort to improve the park has been initiated. The recent announcement that the park would be the home of the Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects–designed Obama Presidential Center shines a light once again on this often maligned stretch of the lakefront.
Well before the Obama Foundation and the Obamas chose Jackson Park, a small yet determined group had begun to transform it. Project 120 is a not-for-profit started in 2013 with the express goal of revitalizing Chicago’s South Parks. These include Jackson Park, the Midway Plaisance, and Washington park, totaling over 1,000 acres of parkland. Guiding much of the transformation’s design of Jackson Park is New York–based wHY. wHY and Project 120 worked extensively with the surrounding communities of Hyde Park, Woodlawn, and South Shore to understand the challenges of building in Chicago parks along the lake. On the same day the location for the Presidential Center was announced, open space advocates Friends of the Parks announced that they would not take legal action to oppose the project in the public park. (A lawsuit by Friends of the Parks was responsible for George Lucas’s decision to move his planned Museum of Narrative Art out of Chicago earlier this year.)
“One thing we realized, unlike many museums or large park projects at this scale, is we knew we couldn’t do it from the client top-down master plan perspective,” Mark Thomann, head of wHY’s landscape workshop, Grounds, said. “It had to be ground up. It had to be a long-term collaborative project.”
wHY’s plans integrate much of Olmsted’s original vision while adding new amenities. The most ambitious of these is a sweeping music pavilion and visitors center in the heart of the park. The first major addition to the park, though, will be a new sculpture by Yoko Ono entitled Sky Landing. The sculpture will be unveiled in October near the Garden of the Phoenix on Wooded Island, the original site of the Columbian Exhibition’s Japanese Garden. The Army Corps of Engineers Great Lakes Fishery & Ecosystem Restoration (GLFER) program has also been working to remediate the park’s ecology with native plants and wildlife.
As designs have not been released for the Obama Presidential Center, changes to Project 120 and wHY’s framework plans will develop over the coming months. What the addition of the Presidential Center does mean is a guaranteed interest in one of Chicago’s most striking green spaces— by the city and the public.