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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A dispute among friends

Posted By on 09.11.07 at 07:49 PM

The Chicago Children's Museum's plan to move off Navy Pier into a much larger new building proposed for the north end of Millennium Park enjoys a lot of high-powered support -- like the mayor, for instance. But the Chicago Tribune stands opposed. "A museum in Grant Park? No," said the blunt headline to a September 2 editorial making the paper's case. There's a ritualistic aspect to any debate about land usage in Grant Park, and the Tribune, sure enough, went back to the 1836 decree designating Chicago's lakefront as "Public Ground -- A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free."

From that proclamation, Lois Wille drew the title of her classic 1972 book telling the tale of Montgomery Ward's lonely turn-of-the-century legal struggle to defend the lakefront. Any Grant Park debate will cite Wille. Her history recalled that the Illinois Supreme Court banned buildings from the lakefront in 1897 and even museums in 1909. (The Tribune said the Art Institute was the grandfathered exception.) Wille used to run the Tribune's editorial page, and the Tribune naturally enlisted her book in its cause. The editorial informed us that "the Supreme Court 'conceded that a museum was a proper building to place in a public park,' Wille wrote. 'But the issue here was more than a park, the court said. The issue was open space' -- the preservation, decreed in 1836, of unobstructed views of Lake Michigan." In the Tribune's view Millennium Park is already "the camel's nose under the tent," and with the new museum on the east side of Columbus Drive, "Here comes the camel."

On Monday night the matter drew an overflow crowd to the Grant Park field house. Champions of the project dominated the mike time, and the moment of high drama arrived when museum publicist Jim Law unfurled a letter from Lois Wille herself repudiating the Tribune editorial.

"I resent the selective use of quotes from my book, 'Forever Open, Clear, and Free,' to justify the editorial's conclusions," she wrote. "I was offended, too, that as a past editorial page editor of the Tribune, I was not informed by either the current editorial page editor or the author who wrote the editorial that the Tribune would take this position and use my name and my book in an apparent attempt to buttress their arguments. A few weeks ago, Bruce Dold [present head of the editorial page] asked me how I felt about a new Children's Museum on East Randolph in Daley Bicentennial Plaza. I responded that I was enthusiastic about the plans and the site and gave a detailed explanation of my reasoning. I didn't hear from him again."

What was that all about?  

I called Wille and she made the following points: That the Art Institute was not grandfathered in -- it was too low to trouble Michigan Avenue property owners such as Ward. That if the editorial was going to quote from her book it shouldn't have neglected the central issue of obstructed views. That the Harris Theater on Randolph Drive was redesigned to make it lower and put most of it below street level and that the museum has been designed the same way. That in her view "clustering cultural entertainment" along East Randolph is OK "if they're low." And that if the museum is built the Gehry Bridge over Columbus Drive from Millennium Park will finally lead somewhere.

"They had a perfect right to quote my book -- it's out there," said Wille, "but when you leave out the part about 'does it obstruct the view?' I think you're leaving out a really key element. You can also say that if what they quoted was followed today, that whole area would be meadowland, which might be pretty but it wouldn't attract tens of thousands of people from throughout the area." 

She sent the letter Law quoted from to Gigi Pritzker Pucker, chairman of the Children's Museum, and she sent a letter that said a lot of the same things to Ann Marie Lipinski, editor of the Tribune, with copies to Dold and to John McCormick, who wrote the editorial. Dold got back to her.

Are there other issues? I asked. "We have a good relationship," Wille declared. "I'm fond of him [Dold], and most of the stuff I like."

Dold told me by e-mail that he owns a "dog-eared copy" of Forever Open, Clear, and Free. He said, "The editorial board had two lengthy discussions about the project and ultimately decided to oppose it for the reasons cited in the editorial. I know Lois believes the museum qualifies as an exception to the restrictions on building in Grant Park, but I disagree with her conclusion. Lois wrote the definitive book on the fight to keep the lakefront open. We cited facts in her book and attributed the information to the source. To maintain a sense of fairness, we don't tip anyone in advance about a position the board is going to take. So I didn't feel as though I could tell Lois in advance what position we planned to take. I have invited her to write an op-ed in support of the project, but she has declined."

A while later he wrote again. "She's a wonderful, wonderful person and a mentor to me," Dold said. "I have tremendous respect for her."

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