Jackson Park, the 372-acre, Frederick Law Olmsted–designed site that hosted the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, will be home to the Barack Obama Presidential Center, the nonprofit Obama Foundation announced on Friday. The news puts an end to a year’s worth of speculation around which of the two proposed locations on Chicago's South Side would be selected to host the center (the other being Washington Park, which was also designed by Olmsted and is connected to Jackson Park with a multi-block strip of parkway). Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, Jackson Park already houses the Museum of Science and Industry, itself a remnant of the “White City” designed for the 1893 World’s Fair. Adding to that history: President Obama’s will be the first of the now-14 presidential libraries to be constructed in an urban residential environment.
“The President and First Lady believe that locating the Presidential Center at Jackson Park will have the greatest long term impact on the combined communities,” said Obama Foundation chair Marty Nesbitt, in a statement. “With its aesthetics, iconic location, [and] historical relevance from the World’s Fair, we believe Jackson Park will attract visitors on a national and global level that will bring significant long term benefits to the South Side.”
The Park’s location hearkens back to Obama’s time spent as a community organizer in under-served neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side, while benefiting from its proximity to the popular Museum of Science and Industry. Some critics argue that the choice of Jackson Park, with its pastoral setting, shaded lagoons, and destination museum, over nearby Washington Park is a missed opportunity to bring attention to the latter—a less-trafficked, 366-acre green space featuring sports fields, the DuSable Museum of African American History, and a lagoon, and that borders the University of Chicago to the east and the eponymous neighborhood of Washington Park to the west, which struggles with crime.
Others claim that putting the museum in either park will garnish valuable public land from low-income communities rather than improving the seemingly less desirable portions of the nearby neighborhoods in the process of building the center outside of one of the historic parks—effectively "horse trading" with their resources, CityLab writer (and former ARCHITECT senior editor) Kriston Capps wrote in December 2015. "Instead of building up the community, the foundation (and the city) have instead chosen the most improved parts of the area and offered one up for the taking," Capps writes.
Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin defended the choice of Jackson Park, arguing that putting the library on the city’s South Side “will spread Chicago's cultural wealth,” noting that “the challenges ahead—aesthetic, urban, social, political and economic—are enormous. Balancing the competing imperatives will be a high-wire act for both the president and his architects, the design equivalent of a three-dimensional game of chess.”
In June, the Obama Foundation announced that the team of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects|Partners (TWBTA) and Interactive Design Architects (IDEA) would design the project, which is to incorporate a library, museum, and offices for the foundation. TWBTA has previously designed the Barnes Foundation, in Philadelphia, the Phoenix Art Museum, and the recently demolished American Folk Art Museum, in New York. IDEA’s work includes the Modern Wing and Museum Café at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Officials from the Obama Foundation, the City of Chicago, the University of Chicago, and other local agencies will share more details during a press conference at the Museum of Science and Industry, in Chicago, on Wednesday, Aug. 3. Construction on the project is expected to begin in 2017, after Obama leaves office, with completion by 2021.