October 5, 2015

Local activist fights for historical garden name

Peter Zelchenko, a community activist, presented concerns about the naming of a slice of land on the Lab School campus between 58th Street and the new glass-and-stone Gordon Parks Art Hall at a meeting he arranged in Hyde Park on Wednesday, September 30.

Hyde Park community members and people at the Lab School have long called the land Scammon Garden, or “Scammons,” after Jonathan Young Scammon. Scammon was a prominent early Chicagoan whose family donated or sold much of the land on which the Lab School would be built to the University. Zelchenko argued that the name should be made official, and other steps should be taken to promote Scammon’s place in history.

In an interview, Calmetta Coleman, director of communication for civic engagement at the University, said, “We are looking into whether or not [his proposal] is something we can accommodate.”

School and neighborhood tradition, as reported by Zelchenko and published in some older histories published by the University, held that the agreement transferring the land to the University required this northern section of the block be named in honor of Scammon and kept open to the public. Over a year of research found no evidence of such an agreement.

“It’s not legally Scammon Gardens—it’s by acclamation Scammon Gardens. Faculty and students and families for the last 100 years have simply called it Scammon Gardens,” Zelchenko said.

Zelchenko did find a covenant between an executor of the Scammon estate and the school requiring the southern end of the block to be known as Scammon Court (as opposed to Gardens) and marked as such; plaques bearing the Scammon name are posted in an open-air courtyard in that section of the land. Zelchenko argued that this consideration is insufficient.

“Two little bronze plaques do not a Scammon Court make, and the fact that nobody’s ever called it Scammon Court… [The terms of the Covenant] mean the University must make proactive efforts to make it known as [Scammon Court]. The University has not honored the terms of the covenant,” Zelchenko said.

Among other proposals, Zelchenko asserted that the Scammon name should be formally and permanently attached to the land at the northern end of the block, and that the land be kept open to the public and free of further construction. Zelchenko is circulating a petition in print and online to this effect.

Wednesday’s meeting at First Unitarian Church of Chicago was lightly attended; a meeting earlier this year on the same topic attracted more interest. Wednesday’s event was hosted by the Racial Justice Task Force, part of the Church’s Social Justice Council. Finley Campbell, the chair of the task force, said their interest in the issue was related to Scammon’s history as a supporter of abolition and the Underground Railroad.

“These little small gestures of community responsibility, community awareness…connecting the 150th anniversary of the final legal passage of the 13th Amendment with the 120th anniversary of Scammon’s death is a wonderful win-win situation for publicity, for a greater image [for the University]. And we settle a question that has evidently been irritating [members of the community],” Campbell said.

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