For the fourth time, Montgomery Ward was entangled in a lawsuit over the destiny of the lakefront. For the fourth--and, as it turned out, the last--time, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld Ward's position. Grant Park must remain clear of buildings, the court ruled on this date, and the officials who had wanted to build the Field Museum in the park had no choice but to look elsewhere. The ruling was crucial in protecting Chicago's breathtaking lakefront, one of the city's chief glories.
Ward's lawsuits were based on a few words written in 1836, when the three commissioners of the Illinois and Michigan Canal set aside a soggy stretch of lakefront east of Michigan Avenue that was to remain "forever open, clear and free." That noble declaration was put aside in 1852, when the new Illinois Central Railroad built a trestle in Lake Michigan so its trains could reach the Chicago River. The trestle and its breakwater were unsightly, but they protected Michigan Avenue and its mansions from fierce lake storms.Over the years, the water between the shore and the trestle was filled in with such things as debris from the 1871 fire. The resulting scruffy patch was called Lake Park. Stables, squatters' shacks, mounds of ashes and garbage, and the Illinois Central tracks cluttered the landscape. Ward, who looked down on this mess from the Michigan Avenue skyscraper where his mail-order empire was based, filed suit in 1890 to have it cleaned up and kept open and clear. That was the beginning of a 20-year fight with city and park officials over the future of the land.
At first, few could believe that Ward wanted to keep such valuable land open. A downtown lakefront was no place for a park, one alderman snorted: "It should be used to bring revenue to the city." Then officials embraced the idea and started to fill in the lake to make the park bigger. But park officials wanted to put buildings on this open land, renamed Grant Park in 1901. Ward counted 20 proposals at one point, including Marshall Field's natural-history museum.
In the 1890s, Ward had agreed to the construction of the Art Institute in the park, but he later regretted it. "I fought for the poor people of Chicago," he told the Tribune in the only interview he ever gave on the subject. "Here is a park frontage on the lake, comparing favorably with the Bay of Naples, which city officials would crowd with buildings, transforming the breathing spot for the poor into a show ground of the educated rich. I do not think it is right."
The Field Museum was eventually built on the lakefront outside Grant Park, and after World War I, Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago fueled an ambitious series of landfill projects. Burnham Park was created on the South Side to link Grant and Jackson Parks, and Lincoln Park on the North Side was expanded farther north, reaching Hollywood Avenue after World War II.
The debate about the lakefront did not end with Ward's court victory. A large water-filtration plant next to Navy Pier, the soaring Lake Point Tower residential building, and the McCormick Place exhibition hall were built over the objections of lakefront preservationists. Grant Park, however, fulfilled Ward's hopes and became the city's front yard. Music festivals, symphonic concerts, fireworks displays and the Taste of Chicago food festival annually attract huge summertime crowds to Grant Park, the gem at the center of a 20-mile-long necklace of lakefront parks and beaches.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun