Friday, February 20, 2015

Benjamin F. Ferguson House
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Benjamin F. Ferguson House (1883) /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Benjamin Franklin Ferguson was fairly well-off when he bought this Second Empire house on Chicago's near west side in 1884. B.F. worked in the lumber business  at a time when Chicago produced more board feet of milled and planed lumber than anywhere else in the world, and Ferguson benefited financially as one of the major players in the wood crafting business. Construction had begun on the large, single family home in 1883, but builder John Curran had run out of funds so Ferguson stepped in, bought the property, and finished the job.

  [Benjamin F. Ferguson House, 1501 W. Jackson Boulevard, Chicago /Images & Artwork: designslinger]

When he died in 1905, widowed and childless, he left $1.2 million dollars in trust to the city's major museum, the Art Institute. The money came with a stipulation that income from the trust be used for "the erection and maintenance of enduring statuary and monuments... in the parks, along the boulevards or in other public spaces," in the city that had brought him his good fortune. The trust was to be overseen by a committee made up of trustees of the museum who would select the artwork to be produced, and the site it would sit on.

  [Benjamin Ferguson House, West Jackson Boulevard National Historic District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Over the next 28 years 12 pieces were commissioned and erected across Chicago, some more popularly acclaimed than others, but all fulfilling the trust's mandate. That is until 1933 when the trustees, very quietly and under the radar, went to the Cook County Circuit Court and filed a petition to have the terms of the trust reinterpreted. Just what constituted a "monument" the museums lawyers asked. Could the term be applied to a building, especially if a monument is deemed enduring? The judge said yes. The museum needed space, and the Depression had wreaked havoc with funding so why not dip into the Ferguson Fund? Well, the new building didn't materialize until 1955, but the trustees used $1.6 million dollars of accumulated interest to help pay for its construction, and in a nod to the benefactor named the place the B.F. Ferguson Memorial Building. Lots of citizens were angry that the museum used the fund to help pay for a building, and an administrative office building at that, and all sorts of lawsuits were filed by various organizations, including the city. But since the Illinois Attorney General chose not to file suit, the courts threw out all the other complaints because the judges said only a case filed by the attorney general had standing. So that was that.
In 1961, as a result of the Ferguson Memorial Building action, the Illinois legislature passed a law requiring more transparency, oversight and citizen review before something similar could happen again. Ironically the trustees never built a statue of Ferguson, not that he would have ever wanted one, but there are 17 pieces of sculpture standing in the city today built with funds provided by Ferguson's initial bequest. A commemorative plaque was added to the back of the granite pedestal of first artwork ever created under the Fund acknowledging the benefactor's contribution to his city, but you can't see it any longer. In 1967 when the museum added a south wing, the Fountain of the Great Lakes was shifted from its original central position in the south garden, to the west facade of the new Morton Building. The commemoration now butts up against that wall.

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