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People & Events: Aaron Montgomery Ward (1844-1913) and Chicago's Lakefront

Cover of 1894 Ward catalogue (Pianos, sewing machines) Aaron Montgomery Ward made his money as a mail-order catalog merchant, and left a thriving business, but perhaps his true legacy is on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Ward's headquarters was an eight-story building at Michigan and Madison Streets. Across from his office, the lakefront property was occupied by abandoned junk, and used as a site for prize-fights and prostitution.

The land had originally been designated as "Public Ground -- A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear, and Free of Any Buildings, or Other Obstruction, Whatever" and Ward fought to regain the land for the public. From 1890, he battled neighbors and city councils, spending over $50,000 on lawsuits. He fought the establishment of an armory, and he obstructed Marshall Field's new museum of natural history. Ward later regretted that he didn't insist on removing the young Art Institute. In fact, the museum remained only for the sake of a clause in the eviction: any building that had the unanimous approval of adjacent property owners could stay -- and the approval of one of the museum's neighbors was forged by her husband.

Montgomery Ward BuildingIn 1909, the Supreme Court of Illinois upheld Ward's court victory, and the lakefront remains a public space today.

Ward remarked:

Had I known in 1890 how long it would take me to preserve a park for the people against their will, I doubt if I would have undertaken it. I think there is not another man in Chicago who would have spent the money I have spent in this fight with the certainty that even gratitude would be denied as interest. I fought for the poor people of Chicago, not the millionaires... Perhaps I may yet see the public appreciate my efforts.

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