Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Montgomery Ward & the Lakefront: The Battle Continues -- February 18, 1903

The Field Museum of Natural History -- south of Grant Park
JWB Photo
At the conclusion of a meeting of the South Park Board of Chicago on this date, February 18, in 1903 the news was that the city was to receive a ”mammoth lake front museum” through a gift of ten million dollars from Marshall Field – with just one big “if.”

In order to secure the donation Field required that an act be passed “giving control of all the Lake Front park to the South park commissioners.”  [Chicago Tribune, February 19, 1903]

The wheels were already turning as the south park board and “citizens interested in the improvement of the lake front park” were pressuring the legislature to pass an act that transferred the portion of the park north of the Art Institute, a tract of land that was under state control, to the park commissioners and “to vest all the park rights with the park commissioners and to remove the obstacles which property owners at present may put in the way of buildings on the lake front – such obstacles as Montgomery Ward has set up in the past.”

H. N. Higinbotham, Marshall Field’s representative in the affair, stated, “What we want is a centralization of control in the park board . . . There are no obstacles which cannot be removed, an when they have been removed it will be time for consideration of a museum plan.  Then, if Mr. Field wants to build a museum, it will be possible.”

The plan was to fill in the lake east of the Illinois Central tracks, followed by the construction of a building that would “eclipse anything of the kind ever undertaken in the city.”

Aaron Montgomery Ward
A day later the obstacle to the ambitious plan presented itself in the form of Aaron Montgomery Ward.  His attorney, George P. Merrick, stated, “This much coveted strip of land is reserved for park purposes for all time to come.  It is for the people, and will be kept free from buildings.  Signatures of a majority of the abutting property owners will not open the way for the erection of buildings.  Every owner must consent before a building can be constructed lawfully on any part of the street.  Mr. Ward is not actuated by any other motive than to preserve the tract of land as a public park.”  [Chicago Tribune, February 20, 1903]

in the preceding June the Illinois Supreme Court, in Bliss vs. Ward, affirmed the 1839 plat for this area of Chicago, part of the Fort Dearborn addition, which read “Public ground forever to remain vacant of buildings.”  Litigation concerning that section of the city, known as Lake Park in 1903, much of which was under water when the 1839 plat was drawn, would last another six years until it was finally determined that the museum could not legally be built on this section of lakefront property.

Grant Park in 1910, a year after its future was secure
Ward would only live on another four years after that decision, having worked in one way or another to preserve the city’s central lakefront for the better part of two decades.  When in 1909 the case was finally decided and the fight to save the lakefront park had been won, Ward declared, “Had I known in 1890 how long it would take me to preserve a park for the people against their will, I doubt if I would have undertaken it. I think there is not another man in Chicago who would have spent the money I have spent in this fight with the certainty that even gratitude would be denied as interest. I fought for the poor people of Chicago, not the millionaires... Perhaps I may yet see the public appreciate my efforts.”

We appreciate those efforts today, Mr. Ward.

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