Sunday, March 23, 2014

Stevens Hotel vs. Art Institute of Chicago -- March 23, 1931

The Art Institute of Chicago, looking toward the northwest from the lakefront
sometime between 1910 and 1913 
Good news for the Art Institute of Chicago on this date, March 23, in 1931 as the Illinois Appellate Court reversed an earlier decision of Circuit Court Judge William V. Brothers and cleared the way for the museum to build a $5,000,000 addition.

This was yet another chapter in the ongoing legal battle between those who saw Grant Park as a great natural resource that would provide a place of quiet at the foot of a noisy, brawling city and those who were equally committed to making the park a showpiece for the city’s cultural wonders.

It was the Stevens Hotel, curiously enough, that brought the original suit, claiming that “as an owner of property abutting on Michigan Avenue opposite Grant Park it had a right to insist that the land east of the boulevard be preserved for park purposes only.”  [Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1931]  The hotel’s attorneys argued that “light, air, and unobstructed view of the lake were included in the original price of its land when it was bought January 17, 1925.”

At the risk of oversimplifying a debate that is getting closer and closer to being two centuries old, the Canal Commission, attempting to raise funds to create a canal that would connect Chicago to the Des Plaines River sold certain plots of land near the canal to raise money for the enterprise.  Land along the lakefront was clearly marked on the original plat Public Ground – Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of Any Buildings, or Other Obstruction Whatever.

Of course, there was no Grant Park in 1836; in fact, the great majority of the land that now constitutes Grant Park lay below the waters of Lake Michigan.  In fact, it was this geographical fact the courts cited on June 28, 1892 when a ruling was handed down, allowing the original building to be constructed, stipulating that the building “shall not have a frontage of over four hundred feet on Michigan Avenue.”  []

That interpretation over the following two decades was amended for various reasons and through various court cases (that would take another three-dozen or so pages to present) so that the natural parkland along the lakefront was less and less threatened.

In 1896, for example, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the Illinois Central railroad could not erect a building in the park area, even though it actually owned tracks on the site.  On February 3, 1892, in a suit brought by A. Montgomery Ward, the city was prohibited from building an armory in the park.  Almost exactly four years later in a similar suit brought by the same man, construction of what is now the Field Museum of Natural History was prohibited in the park.  There is a legitimate reason why Mr. Ward is today known as "The Savior of the Lakefront."

But the thing was . . . the Art Institute had been there for 40 years and had grown considerably in that time.  Therefore, although this once again oversimplifies the case, the court found . . .

The several ordinances, contracts, agreements and decisions of the courts, as hereinbefore recited, seem to us in every provision to contemplate the possession of a portion of Grant Park by the Art Institute permanently for the purposes for which it was created and with a view to its future expansion and development as the city in which it is situated should expand and develop. It seems to be a necessary inference from all the evidence recited that this was the intention of the respective parties at the time the owners upon Michigan Avenue executed their written consents to the location and construction of the original building. Not only does that intention appear from the language of the documents, but it is corroborated by the contemporaneous and continued construction which seems to have been put upon these waivers during the years in which no objection has been made to the continuous development of the Art Institute as an institution. We hold such to be the reasonable construction. The easement of complainant and other property holders is not destroyed, but they have, as the Daggett case shows and the Ward case holds, given their consent to the erection of the original building and to such enlargements as may become necessary by reason of the growth and expansion of the community in which the institution is located. []

Guess what happened after 1931?  A whole bunch of bad stuff – a national depression, a world war, a prolonged recovery, and a bunch of would-be donors trying to get back on their feet again.  So although the case was decided in 1931, it wasn’t until 1958 that the Ferguson Building, designed by Holabird, Root & Burgee, was finished.

And to make that happen the Art Institute had to go to court again in 1953 to free up cash from the Ferguson Fund, which had been established a half-century earlier for the creation of public art throughout the city.  But that's another story for another time.

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