It would be no ordinary garden—and she was no ordinary woman.
Trained as a scientist, Katharine graduated from MIT in 1904, the second woman ever to do so. Shortly after graduation, she married Stanley McCormick, part of Chicago’s prominent McCormick family, and devoted the rest of her life to philanthropy and activism. Her work in women’s suffrage in Boston led to her meeting Margaret Sanger, birth control activist and future founder of the organization that would become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The two collaborated for decades, and McCormick almost single-handedly funded the development of the contraceptive pill.
Following Stanley’s death in 1947 after a decades-long battle with schizophrenia, Katharine inherited his estate. In addition to the support of social causes, she also continued the McCormick family’s tradition of giving generously to the Art Institute. In January 1959, plans were announced to begin work on the North Stanley McCormick Memorial Court, situated at the Art Institute’s northwest corner at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street. Work on the garden began in March 1959 and concluded early in 1960, replacing what for years had been mostly a wide expanse of lawn.
Classical Meets Modern
Designed by the architectural firm of Holabird, Root, and Burgee, the North Garden’s design mimicked elements of the adjacent B. F. Ferguson Memorial Building, completed by the same firm in 1958. The garden took its inspiration from classical forms, with a streamlined, modern twist.
It featured rows of hawthorn trees and beds of flowers arranged in geometric but asymmetrical patterns. The garden’s main axis ran past a large pool featuring three jets of water and up a monumental stairway to a platform just in front of the Ferguson Building. On this platform sat three tall bronze flagpoles, shipped in for the project from Europe, with sculptural bases. The garden’s pavement was made up of concrete slabs speckled with marble chips, forming a pattern in gray and green, separated from the planted areas with borders of pink granite.
The Garden over the Years
The North Garden has changed considerably in the decades since it was first designed, undergoing an initial revisal in 1980 and a more substantial one in 1990, when plans were made to switch out the pool and rigid architectural landscaping for a central lawn of organic plantings surrounded by paved walkways and benches. The redesign, made possible through the generosity of Art Institute trustee Sidney Port and his wife, Bettie, transformed the space into a true sculpture garden. Designed by Hanna/Olin, it incorporated several artworks from the museum’s collection, including Alexander Calder’s Flying Dragon, purchased for the space through a gift by the Ports. A further revision of the North Garden’s plantings was done in 2003 by Jens Jensen, great-great grandson and namesake of the renowned early 20th-century landscape architect and colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The American Elm: A Tribute
Among the most prominent features of the garden today are its two oldest trees, large American elms planted around the time the Ferguson Building was constructed. Because the limbs of elm trees have a tendency to spread and hang down, attached cables have been used to raise them, preventing distracted pedestrians from walking into them as they pass by.
These trees represent a continuation of architect Daniel Burnham’s plan for Chicago at the turn of the century, which included tree-lined boulevards and shaded parks. Eventually, thousands of trees were planted throughout the city—ash, cottonwood, linden, maple, oak, and, of course, the American elm. At one point, there were over 1,800 elm trees in Grant Park alone. But in the late 1970s, the elm bark beetle spread Dutch elm disease, decimating these stately trees across Chicagoland and the country. The survival of the North Garden’s two remaining elm trees offers us a tangible link to the garden’s history and a throughline into its future.
A Look Ahead
Today the garden, with its mature shading trees, sunny lawn, and additional sculptures from the collection, is being tended by our groundskeeping staff in anticipation of its annual reopening—as is its counterpart, the South Stanley McCormick Memorial Court. Katharine McCormick funded the construction of this second space, built in 1962, shortly after the first, gifting the Art Institute with not one but two modern and serene urban gardens. And while we can’t predict exactly when the gardens will open this year, we look forward to sharing the beauty of these living memorials with museumgoers, Loop workers, and tourists again soon. Because in a city that’s busy and bustling—as surely it will be again—we’ll all need a tranquil place to convene and connect with nature, with history, with art, and with each other.
public artworks in the north garden
- Museum History