The Art Institute of Chicago only exists because a woman’s legal rights didn’t.
Let me rephrase.
The Art Institute of Chicago is a global treasure and one of my personal favorite places in existence. Not only is it my refuge in case of zombie apocalypse (What? I could do a lot of damage in the medieval armor), but the stately retreat between the two stone lions is also a haven of art and history and beauty among downtown chaos.
But its existence is due entirely to 1800s legal attitudes toward a woman. Her name was Sarah.
As I’ve written about before, Chicago’s lakefront was intended to be clear of all buildings. No luxury apartment complexes. No ill-conceived pop art museums. Quoting an 1836 Canal Commissioners’ plat, Chicago’s lakefront is “Public Ground—Forever Open, Clear and Free of any Buildings, or Other Obstruction Whatever.”
Or, quoting fin de siècle lakefront watchdog A. Montgomery Ward, “Here is a park frontage on the lake, comparing favorably with the Bay of Naples, which city officials would crowd with buildings, transforming the breathing spot for the poor into a showground of the educated rich.
“I do not think it is right.”
That was Ward in the Chicago Tribune during his prolonged, successful legal battle to keep the Field Museum south of Grant Park, quoted in Lois Wille’s 1972 history, “Forever Open, Clear and Free.”
The spot where the Art Institute sits today is part of that open space.
In the post-Fire reconstruction boom of 1872, that particular spot of free land was stolen by the Interstate Industrial Exposition Building, Chicago’s first convention center.
The city was able to build on park land by promising the convention center would be a temporary building, gone by 1877, but they kept pushing back the teardown date. It wouldn’t be torn down until 1891, in prep for the World’s Columbian Exhibition. Planners wanted the spot for a world-class art museum for the upcoming world’s fair.
In 1889, William Leland threw a wrench in the Art Institute plans. The law at the time stated that buildings could only be put up on that forever open public land with the unanimous consent of all the adjacent property owners.
Leland owned adjacent property and didn’t give consent. In 1889, he got an injunction stopping work on the Art Institute. Sarah Daggett, who also owned adjacent property, joined the suit.
The world’s fair was the ticking clock on this. If the Art Institute would be opened by the start of the fair, it would receive $200,000 of World’s Columbian Exposition funds for construction. If not, the museum planners would have to pay that money — roughly $5.3 million in today’s cash — out of pocket.
There was immense pressure to get Leland and Daggett to sign an agreement modifying the injunction, letting the museum proceed. Leland caved. Daggett didn’t.
So Sarah Daggett’s husband forged her signature. And the courts recognized his right to do so.
“Forged” is perhaps the wrong word. He didn’t need to forge anything. He just signed for her, which was a man’s legal right.
What happened, in the words of the Illinois Supreme Court, was “… such modification having been assented to in writing by all the property owners, (the injunction) was accordingly modified, notwithstanding the objection of Mrs. Sarah A. Daggett, whose husband had signed her assent to the proposed modification.”
We have the Art Institute of Chicago because the law in the 1800s said a man could make legal decisions for a woman about land she owned, even in direct opposition to her wishes.
They say the world’s not black and white, that everything’s a shade of gray. But calling the world gray and being done with it is too simplistic for me.
I don’t think the world is gray. I think it’s dots of black and white intermeshed so finely they appear gray to those who don’t look closer. No matter how brightly the Art Institute shines, it doesn’t brighten the black stain of the law that got it there.
My goal in writing this is not to malign a treasured institution. Had I been alive in the 1890s, I might have griped and whined about some rich Michigan Avenue lady keeping me from having an art museum.
But spare a thought for Sarah Daggett. And next time you walk between the gray stone lions that flank the entrance to my treasured haven and zombie refuge, know for a moment there’s a black dot amid the white.