Summer would be a lovely time for a vacation in France! But if you (like me) don’t have this luxury, Chicago’s Grant Park can serve as a stand in. Did you know that French design and planning began influencing the park’s development over a century ago? Please join me on a mini excursion to Paris in Chicago on Saturday, July 7th from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. when I lead an Art in the Parks walking tour of Grant Park. Tickets are available here.
When the Exposition Universalle opened in Paris in 1889, Chicago had already begun a campaign to hold the next World’s Fair here. Chicagoans looked to the Paris Fair for inspiration and ideas. In fact, the Citizen’s Executive Committee of Chicago sent representatives to visit the Exposition Universalle. Afterwards, one of them, railroad executive Edward Turner Jeffery (1843-1927), published a lengthy pamphlet with recommendations for the World’s Columbian Exposition.
After Chicago won the honor of hosting America’s World’s Fair in 1890, renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) helped select Jackson Park as the site for the exposition. Twenty years earlier, Olmsted created an original plan for the park that featured a series of lagoons linked to Lake Michigan. Olmsted collaborated on the planning of Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition with consulting architects Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912) and John Wellborn Root (1850-1891). They incorporated the idea of interconnected lagoons, but linked them to a formal canal known as the Court of Honor. Though much larger in scale, this basin emulated the Paris Exposition’s Fountain Coutan. In addition to this detail, the whole scheme for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition relied on principals of Beaux Arts planning. This French formal style emphasizes unity, symmetry, and straight lines, and features neo-classical architecture, statuary, and fountains.
After the fair, Burnham began sketching a magnificent lakefront park to be constructed on new landfill between Jackson Park and downtown. At first Burnham called this the South Shore Development. He suggested a Seine-like lagoon with ornamental bridges as the park’s centerpiece and a scenic drive with bicycle, speeding, and equestrian tracks, as well as a walkway edging the Lake and beaches. This scheme spurred the development of Burnham’s famous 1909 Plan of Chicago and, ultimately, the creation of Burnham Park. (Check out the article “Daniel H Burnham and Chicago’s Parks” to learn more.)
As Burnham made sketches for an expanded south lakefront, he also began planning improvements to Grant Park. At the time, Chicago’s “Front Yard” was merely a narrow strip of lawn edged by unsightly Illinois Central Railroad tracks. The Art Institute of Chicago had recently taken possession of the World’s Congresses Building, the sole Fair building located along the downtown lakefront. Other than this attractive Classical building, the rest of the park had become an eye-sore. Mail-order magnate Aaron Montgomery Ward (1844-1913), whose Michigan Avenue offices overlooked Grant Park, initiated a series of lawsuits to compel City officials to clean up the site and remove ugly shacks they had built there.
After the World’s Columbian Exposition, one of Ward’s business competitors, department store owner Marshall Field (1834-1906), donated $1 million for a natural history museum. Although the museum initially opened in the old Fine Arts Palace in Jackson Park, Field wanted a new building. Burnham sited the proposed Field Museum as the centerpiece of his elaborate Grant Park plan. Inspired by traditional French landscapes, he envisioned the Field Museum as a magnificent Beaux Arts style structure surrounded by formal tree allées, trimmed hedges, lawn panels, fountains, and sculptures. If compared to the Versailles gardens, the Field Museum can be likened to the magnificent French palace. Chicago’s South Park Commissioners hired Olmsted’s sons, the Olmsted Brothers, to help Burnham with the fanciful landscape plans.
The State of Illinois passed legislation in 1903 to allow Grant Park’s enlargement through landfill and to pave the way for the Field Museum’s construction. Ward’s lawyers knew that, in the 1830s, the park had been reserved as “a common to remain forever open, clear, and free of other obstructions whatever.” Their efforts to prevent the construction of the museum or other buildings in Grant Park led to several State Supreme Court lawsuits. Landfill operations continued as the park commissioners prepared to move ahead with Burnham’s grand plan. But, much to the surprise of the commissioners and the public, Ward won the final lawsuit in December of 1910. Burnham’s new Field Museum would not be completed for another decade, on landfill south of the Grant Park boundaries protected by the Supreme Court decision.
By the late 1910s, the South Park Commissioners were finally ready to complete Grant Park, but Burnham died in 1912, and he had never created an alternative scheme for the site. So they hired Edward H. Bennett (1874-1954) to produce to new plans for Grant Park. Bennett was uniquely suited to create a plan that would respect Burnham’s vision for a French landscape while also protecting Grant Park’s views of Lake Michigan. Not only had Bennett been trained at École des Beaux-Arts, the famous French architecture school, but he had worked closely with Burnham and co-authored the seminal Plan of Chicago.
Bennett’s revised plan included many of the components Burnham had envisioned, such as symmetrically-laid out spaces with allées of trees, lawn panels, formal gardens, sculptures, fountains, ornamental concrete balustrades, rostral columns, and a peristyle. In 1919, as construction began along the northwestern part of the park, Bennett designed a Victory Concourse – a WWI monument evocative of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris – to serve as the formal focal point of the park. Instead, the South Park Commissioners decided to erect Soldier Field as Chicago’s WWI memorial, and Bennett’s monument was never built.
By the mid- 1920s, Bennett envisioned a monumental fountain as Grant Park’s centerpiece. Chicagoan Kate Sturges Buckingham (1858–1937) donated over $1 million for the memorial fountain, which honors her brother, philanthropist and businessman Clarence Buckingham (1854–1913). Bennett designed the monument in collaboration with two Frenchmen, sculptor Marcel Loyau (1895–1936) and engineer Jacques H. Lambert (1891-1948). Inspired by the Latona Fountain at Versailles, Chicago’s monument emulates the shape of a wedding cake, with four elaborately carved basins. But the Buckingham Fountain is many times larger than its French counterpart. Symbolizing Lake Michigan, Grant Park’s fountain utilizes as much as 15,000 gallons of water per minute, with a spray reaching 150 feet above the ground.
In contrast to the 17th-century Latona Fountain which is enlivened by marble figures of gods, goddesses, frogs and lizards, the Buckingham Fountain has sculptural sea horses, bull rushes, and lily pads. Loyau’s whimsical green-pantinated bronzes express the Art Deco style which had recently come into popularity in Paris. Loyau received the Prix National, a prestigious international award, at the 1927 Paris Salon for his Buckingham Fountain sculptures.
As Grant Park reached completion between the late 1920s and early 1930s, other Art Deco elements became part of its final design. Two of my favorites are the Equestrian Indians. The work of Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic (1883–1962) these colossal figures are poised to shoot an arrow and throw a spear. Mestrovic left the weapons to our imaginations. Although some Chicagoans believe that the bow and spear were removed from the sculptures during renovations, they actually never existed.
I hope you’ll consider joining my walking tour on July 7th, when we can admire all of the beautifully-designed elements of Grant Park. So, please register for my Parisian stroll in the heart of Chicago, and check out the other park tours that are still available.