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Chicago Travel and Tourist Information - Grant Park

Grant Park: Chicago's Front Yard
By Theresa Carter

"Nor is it out of character that Chicago's grandest achievement-a largely manmade arc of lakefront parks and beaches - began as a mistake, from waste thrown into Lake Michigan - a 75-year-old dump." - - - Pat Colander

As a Chicagoan (not by birth, but by choice), I choose to take the above quote as a sign of a characteristic to make the best out of a bad situation. (Consider the beloved Cubs: hey, if they don't win, at least we'll make a party out of it.)

Grant Park, Chicago's "front yard", owes its current glory to two very different reasons. The first is the fact that it was a landfill. After the Chicago Fire of 1871, ashes and rubble were pushed into the park and expanded its boundaries into Lake Michigan. In the years after its dedication as a public space Grant Park was quickly losing ground due to erosion. The erection of two breakwaters and the "waste not, want not" use of the city's rubble increased the area to the size it is now.

The second is to Aaron Montgomery Ward's dedication to keeping the lakefront "free and clear". In 1835 and 1836 the area was deeded as a public square. When Daniel Burnham created his much-heralded Plan of Chicago he laid out drafts for a formal landscape with civic buildings. Mr. Ward took umbrage with that design. The original deed said that the area was to "Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of Any Buildings, or Other Obstructions Whatever," and he was determined to keep it that way. After almost 20 years in court he got his wish.

Burnham wasn't entirely defeated, however. And thank goodness. If he were there would be no Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, or Adler Planetarium. These were all built on landfill portions of the park's southern border. So we get our cake and can eat it, too. Mr. Burnham gave us these cultural outlets, Soldier Field, and a city designed around the lake front, and Mr. Ward's efforts left us with this grand space that allows the city to hold its frequent summer festivals.

There's one more player who is responsible for the park as it is today. Kate Buckingham, a frequent visitor to Europe, commissioned the Clarence Buckingham fountain to honor her late brother. The fountain is a landmark, a point of reference, and a centerpiece.

The area north of Grant Park and the Art Institute used to be an unsightly rail yard. It just didn't seem right to have an eyesore so close to the vast expanses of green in the heart of the city, so in 2001 Millennium Park was built. This park is much more structured with buildings, sculptures, a permanent outdoor theater, and a bridge designed by Frank Gehry. Methinks Mr. Burnham and Mr. Ward would be proud.

Theresa Carter is creator and publisher of TheLocalTourist.com, an online guide to Chicago. Restaurants, bars, events, shopping, attractions, things to do and more.

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