The Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s south side is almost half complete, with an opening expected in late 2025.
The $800-million campus-like center, dedicated to former U.S. president Barack Obama, a one-time Chicago resident, is being built on almost 20 acres of city-owned Jackson Park, a Frederick Law Olmsted landmark dating from the 19th century.
The center will lease the property for 99 years.
The campus consists of three buildings — the museum, forum and library, though the library is not a presidential one but municipal.
A presidential library has not been decided upon and could be built in another city altogether given Obama’s peripatetic upbringing. There is also speculation it could simply be a virtual library given so many contemporary White House records are now digitized.
The campus will have several landscape and water features to help create a welcoming community space. The site will also connect “seamlessly” to the greater 550-acre Jackson Park, which borders Lake Michigan.
Without question the museum is the standout structure, a 235-foot, more than 20-storey equivalent, monolithic tower.
It is shaped like four hands coming together “representing the idea that it takes many distinct hands and perspectives to form an idea, shape a place, and make change,” Lori Healey, Obama Foundation senior vice-president overseeing the project, told the Daily Commercial News by email.
The top corner will see giant words from Obama’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1960s civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., also known as Bloody Sunday, when marchers were attacked and beaten by police.
The words, at the top of the tower, will be five feet high, allowing visitors to peer out through them and “to view the south and west sides of Chicago – communities that have given the Obamas so much,” Healey said.
The tower or museum will have exhibits featuring presidential artifacts and public spaces on the lower floors including a café and retail store. At the top will be the Sky Room, offering 360-degree views of the city.
The second building, the 44,000-square-foot forum, will be a community space for events and recreation including an NBA-regulation basketball court, befitting as Obama was a basketball enthusiast.
The third building is a Chicago public library branch, which has caused some confusion in the public mind thinking it’s an official presidential library, according to a heritage activist.
As well, it may have been a tradeoff for the city severing part of Jackson Park to the Obama Foundation. When asked about this, Healey replied, “Having a Chicago Public Library branch was not a requirement, but it is one of the many ways the center plans to engage community members and visitors.”
Healey says the center generally differs from other such complexes of “memorializing” the past.
Rather, this will “create spaces for people to gather, learn and interact and be inspired to make change.” The landscape is designed to be calm and reflective and “weave” into the greater Jackson Park.
There will be the Ann Durham Garden, named after the president’s mother, and a water garden designed by Maya Lin, who designed Washington D.C.’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The centerpiece will be the John Lewis Plaza, named for the politician and famous civil rights activist.
The tower has proved to be a difficult build in casting the perimeter walls and initial concrete pours. This “translated into a large amount of steel reinforcement within the concrete of the building and expert co-ordination between the placement of the rebar and the various conduits and pipes that had been set in or passed through the walls,” Healey said.
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, while supportive of the center as a future “great institution,” criticized its location and said it ironically works against aiding the nearby south side community.
He said there were “identified” alternative sites to the west in local neighborhoods.
“I think there’s obviously an attempt to green the space and have a plaza because they realize they took 20 acres of Frederick Law Olmsted designed parkland,” he said.
And, Miller said, the foundation “did not want to partake” in a community benefits agreement, ironic for a former president “who got his start in community organizing.”
The public library is also redundant since a couple of others exist nearby.
“A lot of people have referred to it as a bait and switch,” he said. “The public library took the place of a presidential library so you could still refer to it as a presidential library complex…it confused words, terms.”
The project architect was Tod Williams Billie Tsien, landscape design by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and contractor is the Lakeside Alliance of five construction firms.