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Grant Park’s Storied History

At more than 300 acres, Grant Park is the crown jewel of downtown Chicago. And it particularly shines in the summer with a packed schedule of food, music and cultural events. But have you ever thought about the history behind the park, which is almost as old as the city itself? That's a topic public historian and Lewis University professor Dennis Cremin tackles in his new book. He joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Read an excerpt from Chapter 5 of Grant Park: The Evolution of Chicago's Front Yard.

The Field Museum

The Olmsted brothers had envisioned in their 1908 Plan for Grant Park that the Field Museum and the Crerar Library would be central features of park. When the court ruled in favor of Ward in 1911, it forbade construction within the historical designation of Grant Park. Determined to build these two long-anticipated cultural institutions on the lakefront, the South Park Commission creatively modified its plans. The Illinois Central Railroad offered an area of land it was reclaiming from the lake to the south of Twelfth Street as a site for the museum. The court ruling didn’t apply to this site because it lay just outside the original designation of public land on the park’s southern boundary.37 As part of the land-transfer agreement, the Illinois Central obtained permission for a new central depot complementing the architectural style of the Field Museum. Although the railroad ultimately chose not to build this station, the Illinois Central increased its right-of-way along the lakefront from three hundred to six hundred feet.

In 1913, the South Park Commission moved quickly to create land and enclose an area to be filled with a breakwater. It then directed contractors to deposit landfill south of Grant Park between Eleventh and Sixteenth Streets. After considerable discussion, in 1915, the South Park Commission and Field Museum trustees reached an accord on the construction of the museum on landfill south of Grant Park at Twelfth Street, east of the Illinois Central’s right-of-way. An undisputed site for the museum was finally established. But the physical challenges of building the museum would be no less problematic than locating the building had been.

Burnham created the early design for the museum, with the architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White overseeing its completion. After the landfill operation was completed in 1915, the Thompson-Starrett Company began construction of the Field Museum on July 26, 1915, pushing ahead with the work foundations and construction south of Grant Park in 1916 and 1917. The South Park Commissioners reported in 1917 that they hoped the Field Museum of Natural History would be finished by June 1918.

This was not to be. The problems with construction of the Field Museum varied from wartime material shortages to the difficulties of constructing a building on newly created landfill. The frame and exterior of the vast building took another two years to complete. Half of the Field was buried underground, making it proportionate in height to the Art Institute, and the distinctive columns and pediments of Field’s neoclassical façade were in keeping with the Art Institute’s design. Situated just outside of Grant Park, the magnificent edifice of the Field Museum was decidedly removed from the center of activity in the park (see fig. 5.6).

By early 1920, with only interior work remaining, the museum’s trustees made plans to transport the exhibits from the Field Museum of Natural History, in the former Palace of Fine Arts Building (now the Museum of Science and Industry), in Jackson Park to the new site, and the commission began to improve its landscape. On October 20, 1920, the South Park Commissioners passed an ordinance that extended Grant Park “to include the area from Randolph Street to 13th street, a total area of 205.14 acres.” The Field Museum ultimately opened within Grant Park, although the commission had to expand the park to make that happen.

The other major structural feature of the Olmsted brothers’ 1908 plan had been the Crerar Library. Since 1897, the library had been operating on two floors of the Marshall Field Annex building at Wabash and Washington Streets. However, both the library’s trustees and South Park Commissioners had set their sights on a location in Grant Park. Unlike the Field Museum, the library’s funding did not depend on its location. In 1912, after the Ward ruling, the Crerar Library’s trustees secured a site on the northwest corner of Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue, north of the Chicago Public Library. Wartime shortages delayed the completion of the library until 1920, and readers entered the neoclassically inspired skyscraper early the next year.