The City in a Garden

A Photographic History of Chicago's Parks

South Park System: 1869-1900

south-park-systemThe newly appointed South Park Commissioners acquired 1055 acres of land, then located just outside of Chicago's southern border, and hired Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to transform the site into parkland. Having designed New York City's Central Park in 1858, Olmsted and Vaux had become the nation's most influential landscape architectural firm. 1 Olmstea and Vaux believed that urban parks provide not only refuge from the stresses of the city, but also an important social benefit as democratic places where people of all classes can have friendly interactions.

In 1871, Olmsted and Vaux published a plan for South Park, now known as Jackson and Washington parks and the Midway Plaisance. Although they considered the unimproved site extremely bleak, they believed that its relationship with Lake Michigan was its greatest asset. 2 Their compositions often combined sublime elements such as a shadowy winding path, which created a sense of mystery or anxiety, with beautiful or graceful elements such as a broad sunny meadow, which made people feel calm. Interpreting the lake as a tremendous object of sublime scenery, Olmsted and Vaux used water as the plan's guiding theme. They designed a rugged series of lagoons linking Lake Michigan on the east with Washington Park on the west via a long canal through the middle of Midway Plaisance. In Washington Park, the firm created the element that best conveyed their beautiful style, the South Open Green, a meadow for ballgames, in which sheep freely roamed.

By the late 1880s, most of Washington Park comprised an improved landscape, but only the northernmost part of Jackson Park's marshy site had been transformed into parkland. After a local committee secured Chicago as the site for a major World's Fair in 1890, Frederick Law Olmsted was asked to help select the fair's location. Stressing the importance of views of Lake Michigan as the fairground's backdrop, and noting the unfinished state of Jackson Park, he suggested this as the site for the World's Columbian Exposition. Along with renowned architects Daniel H. Burnham and John Welborn Root, Olmsted and his assistant Henry Codman planned a gleaming campus of monumental buildings set in a landscape of interconnected lagoons, oriented around the formal Court of Honor basin. Visitors entering the fair by train or boat saw this ceremonial water court and its linkage to Lake Michigan upon their arrival. Just to the north, the Court of Honor linked naturalistic lagoons surrounding large Wooded Island with smaller islands scattered around its edges.

Olmsted intended Wooded Island as a refuge from the densely built and classically inspired structures of the "White City," created by a team of the nation's most important architects and sculptors. To produce sylvan character, Olmsted reshaped a natural, sandy bar peninsula into an island, retaining the site's stands of native oak trees. He also transplanted masses of shrubs and aquatic plants from marshland in Illinois and Wisconsin to Wooded Island and around its edges. Although Olmsted had hoped to keep the island free of buildings, there were many requests to build there. The only structure that Olmsted agreed to was the Japanese pavilion. He felt that this simple and elegant ancient Japanese temple, known as Ho-o-den would not interfere with the natural appearance of the island.

During a six-month period in 1893, Jackson Park's World's Columbian Exposition dazzled more than 27 million visitors. After the fair, a series of fires destroyed many of the buildings, and most of the other structures were soon razed. In 1895, Olmsted's firm, then known as Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot, began transforming the site back into parkland. Remaining true to the park's original plan, the re-design included an interconnected system of serene lagoons with lushly planted shores, islands, and peninsulas. A magnificent promenade, now part of Lake Shore Drive, provided broad views of Lake Michigan. In contrast to the sublime views of the water, the plan also incorporated an elongated meadow for lawn tennis and a larger playing field. In 1899, the South Park Commission used the long meadow as the site for the first public golf course in the Midwest, and the following year the playing field was adapted for use as an 18-hole course that still exists today.

1. Together, Olmsted and Vaux had prepared the "Greensward Plan," the winning entry in a competition to design New York City's Central Park in 1858. This plan proved to be one of the most significant works in the history of American landscape architecture. As partners, Olmsted and Vaux designed dozens of large parks in major American cities and Riverside, Illinois, the nation's first planned community. Although Olmsted went on to practice with other partners and created various kinds of landscapes, including private estates and university campuses, his parks had the greatest impact on American culture.
2. Olmsted, Vaux and Company. Report Accompanying Plan for Laying Out the South Park, Chicago: South Park Commission, 1871, pp3-40.