Grant Park: the Making of Chicago’s Front Yard

Find out why it took over a century and several lawsuits to create this Chicago centerpiece.

Grant Park is one of Chicago’s most recognizable and beloved landmarks.

It hosts the city’s biggest festivals; it’s got Buckingham Fountain, baseball fields, a skate park, a band shell, and gardens and a dog park and the list goes on and on and on.

But, creating and saving this public space was no easy task. It was such a battle it involved city ordinances and lawsuits all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. There were also people who essentially said: “take my money!”

Whodathunk so much drama could play out over a park? So. Much. Drama.

From its beginnings as a strip of sand to its current status as the city’s Front Yard, the story of Grant Park is a microcosm of the personalities and interplay of greed and philanthropy that built this city.

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It began with a simple notation on a map: “Public Ground – A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of any Buildings or Other Obstructions whatever.”

In 1836, the town of Chicago was only three years old and the city wouldn’t be incorporated until the next year. Commissioners for the Illinois and Michigan Canal raised money to build the waterway by selling parcels of land the U.S. Congress had provided for that purpose.

The commissioners sold those plots using a map with blocks laid out in a grid, a layout required by the Land Ordinance of 1785 for any new towns and municipalities.

1836 Map of Chicago by the Illinois and Michigan Canal Commission
1836 Map of Chicago by the Illinois and Michigan Canal Commission

A few of those plots lined Michigan Avenue and faced a strip of land between the street and Lake Michigan. It was prime waterfront real estate, and that meant the same thing in 1836 as it does now:

Mo’ money mo’ money mo’ money.

People would pay more for that lakefront property, but only if they knew it would always be lakefront. Or, at least, have an unobstructed view. The canal commissioners promised it would be forever open, and soon houses lined the boulevard.  

The strip of sand officially became Lake Park in 1844, seven years after the City of Chicago incorporated. Soon, the park’s name would be eponymous: erosion meant that during storms, the water would come all the way up to Michigan Avenue, and sometimes to the rowhouses’ front doors.

They needed a breakwater and they needed one fast.

In 1848, the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad chugged into Chicago. It didn’t take long before Illinois Central Railroad was eyeing that wide-open lakefront. “How’s about we build some tracks along the lake to the river?” they said. Chicagoans, being the savvy bunch they were, said: “How’s about you put your tracks over water and build us a breakwater?”


Illinois Central secured permission to run trestles over the lake and build a breakwater to stop the erosion of Lake Park, but that was all they could do. They couldn’t build any buildings or let trains sit for any length of time. Any structures had to be north of Randolph Street or south of 12th.

That worked for a few years, and residents of Michigan Avenue had a view of Lake Park, followed by a lagoon, then train tracks, and then the breakwater. All Chicagoans could stroll the promenade and take in some fresh air. It was an egalitarian mix of hoi polloi and high society. 

Lake Park with the lagoon at railroad tracks. Image from Chicago Illustrated, 1866; source: Chicago Public Library
Image from Chicago Illustrated, 1866; source: Chicago Public Library

Rail travel increased exponentially, and in 1869, the Illinois General Assembly decided that Illinois Central could buy the portion of the park north of Monroe Street for $800,000.

The railroad would fill the shallow harbor on that side of the park and build a passenger depot. That would be alright, wouldn’t it?  Especially when that $800k could be used to beautify the park south of Monroe. Right? That would work just fine.

HA! Chicago rebelled, called it the “Lake Front Steal,” and the city refused the first installment.

Illinois Central probably would have kept fighting, but a scheme to manipulate the price of gold sent the U.S. economy into a downward spiral. This took away IC’s means to pay or even sustain a legal battle. So, they let it drop and in 1873 the Illinois General Assembly repealed the ill-considered act.

Here’s a twist for you: the gold scheme depended on the U.S. government putting a stop to its gold sales. The men behind the manipulation included Abel Corbin, specifically because he was married to Ulysses S. Grant’s daughter and had access to the President. The park was inadvertently saved by the machinations of Grant’s son-in-law.

See? Drama.

In between Illinois Central’s offer to buy part of the park and the repeal of the act granting the purchase, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 ripped through the young city.

As Chicagoans recovered and rebuilt, they pushed the debris into the lake, filling the lagoon. Businesses needed someplace to go during the clean-up, and many set up transitory structures in Lake Park.

Temporary buildings in Lake Park after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871
Temporary buildings in Lake Park after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

Even the city took advantage of the open space and hired W.W. Boyington, the architect of the surviving Water Tower, to design the Inter-State Industrial Exposition Building.

Inter-state Exposition Building 1872 - 1892 Chicago, designed by W. W. Boyington
Inter-state Exposition Building – source: Andreas’ History of Chicago

The supposedly temporary edifice was built in 1873 to display Chicago goods and prove that the city had recovered. Fairs, art exhibits, and conventions filled the giant hall. In 1884, both the Republican and Democrat Parties held their National Presidential Conventions in the Expo.

Other structures popped up. The Chicago White Stockings had built a stadium in Lake Park five months before the fire, so you know what happened to it. They built a new one in 1878.

Owner Albert Spalding improved that stadium in 1883, but the next year the team had to leave because the Fed gave the land to Chicago with the stipulation that there could be no commercial enterprises in the park. Baseball wasn’t allowed, but apparently other things were OK because there was an armory and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad built a passenger depot.

Grant Park looking north around 1890
Grant Park looking north

The landfill now covered the harbor and extended beyond the tracks; unfortunately, east of the railroad became a dumping ground.

The park that was supposed to be forever open, clear and free decidedly was not, and by 1890, Michigan Avenue landowners, including Aaron Montgomery Ward, had had enough.

It would be natural to think that Ward had purely selfish interests. He and his partner, George Thorne, purchased two of the lots across from the park in 1887, and a third in 1889. Of course he’d want a better view!

Ward and Thorne claimed, however, that they’d purchased those specific lots because they wanted their employees to have sunlight, fresh air, and some relative peace and quiet.

That idea isn’t disingenuous: the company provided health insurance at a time when that benefit wasn’t typical, as well as other employee perqs like free malted milks.

For twenty-one years Ward consistently fought to not only clean up the park but to also keep it clear. His attorney, George Merrick, filed Ward’s first lawsuit on October 16, 1890. The final suit closed on February 8, 1911. He spent about $50,000 ($1,100,000 in today’s money) and incurred the wrath of the city’s leaders, the Chicago Tribune, and everyday Chicagoans.

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Grant Park looking north from Central Station, 1890 - 1901; source: Library of Congress
Grant Park looking north from Central Station, 1890 – 1901; source: Library of Congress

He even defied Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, which included a civic center, a museum, and a library. In 1903, Chicago citizens voted for a tax levy to fund the Field Museum and the Crerar Library, and Ward filed specifically to stop those from being built.

If only they knew then what we know now… If Ward had lost, Lake Park would be filled with city hall, a post office, a police station, a power plant, stables, a library, and a museum. There’d be no room for strolls or picnics in a park with no open land.

The only structure that escaped his single-minded pursuit of an open park was the Art Institute of Chicago. The planners of the Columbian Exposition needed an impressive place to hold lectures and they wanted a building closer to downtown than Jackson Park.

The Art Institute needed a permanent home. The solution was to finally raze the temporary Expo building and construct a new, permanent structure. After the building was no longer needed for the lectures, the Art Institute of Chicago could move in.

Grant Park: the Making of Chicago's Front Yard 1

While all of this legal maneuvering was going on things were still happening in the park. In 1893, the South Parks Commission installed an ornamental, yet working, water fountain.

Joseph Rosenberg had left a bequest of $10,000 in his will for a fountain “to provide the thirsty with a drink.” He’d worked as a newsboy while growing up in Chicago and nobody would ever give the poor young man a sip of water; he wanted to make sure others didn’t have to go thirsty.

Joseph Rosenberg Fountain, circa 1930; source Library of Congress
Joseph Rosenberg Fountain, circa 1930; source Library of Congress

Another statue was installed in 1897 when the Illinois state legislature honored General John Logan with a monument on a hill.

One of the biggest changes during this time involved the name. On October 9, 1901, Lake Park officially became Grant Park in honor of the former President and Civil War hero. 

In 1907, the Olmsted Brothers published their Versailles-inspired plan for Grant Park. The design was part of the Plan of Chicago and included the centrally-located Field Museum. Since the lawsuits put a kibosh on that, Edward Bennett, co-author of the Plan, designed the park himself.

Over the next several years the park kept growing, and by 1914 the shoreline extended 2100 feet beyond Michigan Avenue. Landscaping followed Bennett’s Beaux-Arts-inspired plan.

Ornamental viaducts crossed over the railroad tracks and lengthened roads over what had previously been water. The city wasn’t done with landfill yet, and they continued increasing acreage south of 12th Street, now Roosevelt Road.

This created the future home of the Field Museum, which opened in 1921, Soldier Field, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium, as well as Northerly Island.

In 1927, Kate Buckingham’s gift to the city honoring her brother, the Clarence F. Buckingham Memorial Fountain, opened with a performance of “Pomp and Circumstance” conducted by John Philip Sousa himself.

Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park

The next year the Bowman and the Spearman sculptures were installed at the park’s now elaborate entrance at Congress Plaza.

The park was really shaping up.

When the Depression hit, Mayor Anton Cermak and James C. Petrillo, the president of the musicians’ union, thought it would be a good idea to offer free concerts to keep spirits up.

The city erected a temporary band shell near the Field Museum, although this structure stayed up forty years, even longer than the Expo building. The Grant Park Music Festival began its long life with its first concert on July 1, 1935.

Old Grant Park Bandshell in 1954, source: Chicago Public Library
Old Grant Park Bandshell in 1954, source: Chicago Public Library

Every summer performers entertained. There were even events during World War II, and after the war, attendance skyrocketed.

In 1978, a new bandshell went up east of the Art Insitute. Designed as a semi-permanent structure to satisfy the prohibition of permanent buildings, the Petrillo Band Shell is still going strong.

The rest of the 1900s saw the addition of underground parking garages to remove the unsightly surface-level parking lots.

In 1976 Daley Bicentennial Plaza skirted the building restrictions by putting its field house mostly underground. That section would later become Maggie Daley Park.

In 1986, the city removed the “S” curve of Lake Shore Drive and ten years after that the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Garden opened where cars used to turn.

Millennium Park, with its Gehry-designed music pavilion, on-site restaurant, native garden, public art, and Harris Theater, opened in 2004 and pushes the boundaries of what Ward would have found acceptable.

But that’s a story for another post.

Grant Park Today

Aerial view of Grant Park, photo courtesy Choose Chicago

Grant Park is a living, breathing postcard that illustrates the complexity of this city by the lake.

There are few times when Grant Park is not open, free and clear to all. Lollapalooza takes over in August each year and has since 2005. There will be occasional events, like the NFL Draft or the NBA All-Stars, that require admission.

The rest of the time, anyone can take advantage of this beautiful public space.

Looking north to Buckingham Fountain from the rose garden in Grant Park

Grant Park Highlights

  • Millennium Park
  • Maggie Daley Park
  • Art Institute of Chicago
  • Buckingham Fountain
  • Petrillo Music Shell
  • Congress Plaza
  • Hutchinson Field
  • Museum Campus
  • Skate Park in Grant Park
  • Grant Bark Dog Park

Grant Park may have started as a way to increase property values for a few, but for most of its life, it’s been Chicago’s Front Yard, and everyone can come out to play.

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