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Chicago furor over Childrens' Museum
Annie Wang
Krueck & Sexton Architects

A proposal to build the Chicago Children’s Museum in Grant Park has sparked a firestorm of controversy which has become front-page news for many weeks. Chicagoans from all walks of life are engaged in a debate that encompasses not only a museum for children, but also politics, legal decrees, socioeconomics, and race. Opinions in favor for or against the Chicago Children’s Museum are multifaceted arguments which are tinged by not-in-my-backyard mentality, classism, or genuine concern for the welfare of public space.

The park itself, regarded as the front-yard of Chicago, is a unique waterfront green space which has not been cultivated to its full potential. Currently utilized in the warmer months by residents of the nearby high-rise condominiums, Grant Park is comprised of 20 acres of lawn, topped by an outmoded concrete bunker, the Daley Bicentennial Fieldhouse.

In 1890, businessman Montgomery Ward secured a court ruling upholding the principle that 2,800 acres of lakefront parks, including Grant Park, should “Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of any Buildings or Other Obstruction Whatever." From its beginning, the Montgomery Ward ruling has been interpreted in many ways.

Only a year after the court’s decision, the Art Institute of Chicago was added to Michigan Avenue, and the city of Chicago has


been building ever since. A 1952 Illinois Supreme Court ruling allowed the insertion of parking lots and set a precedent for underground structures. A second parking lot was added to Grant Park in 1974. More recently, the Montgomery Ward decree was defied by the construction of what is now Chicago’s signature cosmopolitan space, Millennium Park. Just to the south of Millennium Park, Frank Gehry’s celebrated BP Bridge drops its wanderers off at Grant Park, described by architect Renzo Piano as a journey “going from somewhere to nowhere.” The building of Chicago Children’s Museum in Grant Park will activate the space and make it a dynamic extension of the activity in Millennium Park, and turn “nowhere” into an exciting destination.

Mayor Richard Daley continues to express his stalwart support for the Chicago Children’s Museum and its move to Grant Park. “It’s a fight for the future of this city… this is worth fighting for,” said Mayor Daley.

The opposition is led primarily by Alderman Brendan Reilly, who has maintained the illegality of the Children’s Museum’s presence in Grant Park, although he admittedly fails to cite any attorneys who can legitimize this claim.

The revised design for the Chicago Children’s Museum, by Krueck + Sexton Architects, in Grant Park is the result of on-going dialogue between the City of Chicago Planning Department, the public, and museum administration. It respects the Montgomery Ward ruling which stipulates that the park be public ground, free from obstructions. The new design elegantly integrates museum and landscape, by lowering the museum into the park, thus replacing the Fieldhouse and the underground parking. Unlike conventional buildings that rise upward, the design for the Children’s Museum is a complete rethinking of spatial sensibilities, utilizing all possible dimensions exemplified by the bold decision to build into the earth.

Mark Sexton, principal of Krueck & Sexton, states: “We have great respect for the Montgomery Ward decree. But is the current underground parking


garage protected by the Ward ruling? We don’t think so. Chicago is now presented with the opportunity to replace a parking garage with a space for children to learn.”

From Randolph Street, visitors follow a large, open pathway that serves as a gateway to the Grant Park. Beautifully landscaped and dotted with gathering spaces, the Randolph Street passage is the entrance to an urban oasis. A glass-enclosed elevator draws patrons down into the Children’s Museum. There is also an entrance at park level. The multi-storey museum is integrated into the 16-foot rise between the park and Randolph Street, taking advantage of this uniquely graded site.

Project architect, Laura Fehlberg, notes, “The project has been a process of continual refinement – fueled both by the aspirations of Chicago Children’s Museum and the pressing concern of preserving the city’s most cherished park space. This design, through subtle manipulation of sloping parkscape, beautifully accomplishes these seemingly contradictory goals – with gracious lawns and weaving pathways above, allowing expansive vistas and natural light deep within.”

Mark Sexton adds, “At the end of the day, this is a great debate because it demonstrates how passionate Chicagoans are about the built environment.”

The Chicago Children’s Museum will next present to the Zoning Committee.

(To see what the fuss is all about please see the project page)



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