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John Wyllys Baird of Baird & Warner passes away at 98

John Baird Baird   Warner.

John Baird of Baird & Warner.

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Updated: January 30, 2014 6:56AM

There are many ways to describe John Wyllys Baird and his contributions to Chicago and the region.

He was a prominent real estate developer running his family’s company, Baird & Warner.

He was a civic leader.

And he was a champion of fair housing, open space and historic preservation.

Architect Laurence Booth once called Mr. Baird “the Gary Cooper of real estate.”

Mr. Baird, Booth said, was like Cooper’s marshal in the movie “High Noon.”

“He was the silent, steady, quiet guy who never got riled, never lost his cool,” Booth said.

Mr. Baird, who suffered a stroke several days ago, died Friday at a hospice in Glenview, a Baird & Warner spokeswoman said. The longtime Winnetka resident was 98.

One of the elder statesmen of Chicago real estate, Mr. Baird’s influence has made stretches of Chicago neighborhoods what they are today.

“He had a real impact on the city,” Steve Baird said of his father. “He changed a lot of things and he was very quiet about it.”

In the 1980s, the elder Baird took his son to Willow and Dayton in Lincoln Park and showed him empty lots and burned out buildings.

Now, that’s near a bustling entertainment and shopping district — the Steppenwolf Theater is just one of the attractions nearby.

“Now you look at it and I tell people that area was a bad area,” the younger Baird said. “He was buying city lots there for $25,000 at that time. He just had that vision.”

Among other contributions, Mr. Baird also helped redevelop Printer’s Row in the South Loop.

In 1976 the buildings, which had at one time been used primarily by printing and publishing business, were abandoned. A tree grew inside the Pontiac Building, at Dearborn and Harrison, Booth said.

And it was only blocks away from the center of Chicago, said Booth, one of the architects who worked to redevelop the area.

“He was a great Chicagoan and he didn’t think that was a good thing for Chicago, and I think he wanted to help us get this change to happen,” Booth said.

“He joined in without hesitation,” Booth said. “He was the big cheese and had everything to lose and, we had nothing to lose but he was right with us.”

That project included the first loft conversion in Chicago, Booth said.

Mr. Baird, a native of Evanston, joined his family’s company after serving as an Army captain during World War II. Before serving in the Army, he attended Wesleyan University and then received a master’s degree in business from Harvard University.

In 1963, he succeeded his father, Warner G. Baird, as president. Baird & Warner was founded in 1855 and was critical in helping the city rebuild after the Great Fire in 1871, according to the company’s history.

Around the time Mr. Baird took over as president of the company, he also led efforts to end housing discrimination in Chicago.

Mr. Baird, who was also the president of what was then called the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council (now the Metropolitan Planning Council), testified in 1962 before the Chicago City Council and called for what he called “open occupancy,” according to family and newspaper reports of the time.

“At the time it would have been considered a very negative thing to the company because it was going against the tradition,” Steve Baird, 61, said.

But his dad was a “very principled guy.”

“He just felt that was the right way,” the younger Baird said.

Mr. Baird even resigned from the city’s Real Estate Board, which his grandfather and great-grandfather had helped start in the 1800s, in protest of its discriminatory policies, Steve Baird said.

Mr. Baird was involved with various civic groups.

He served on the board for the Metropolitan Planning Council for 60 years, said its president, MarySue Barrett.

Mr. Baird was also a longtime board member of the national Trust for Public Land and a member of the local board for that organization, said Beth White, Chicago region director of the trust.

In that capacity, Mr. Baird was involved in the conservation of Senka Park on the city’s Southwest Side, the development of Ping Tom Park in Chinatown and the development of the 606, also known as the Bloomingdale Trail.

“He walked it many times with me,” White said.

“It really delighted him to go out and actually walk the land and see the results of the work,” she said.

Mr. Baird also served for 40 years on the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

Years ago, when an ordinance passed requiring city workers to live in Chicago, Mr. Baird, a volunteer on the commission, was asked about living outside the city limits.

His son said Mr. Baird replied: “‘I live in Chicago and I sleep in Winnetka.’ He was a Chicagoan through and through.”

“We benefit from people like John Baird,” Barrett said. “Historically, there were those rare business leaders who decided to do more than just run their business. John always felt that was part of his responsibility. “

Mr. Baird served as president of Baird & Warner until 1991 and was succeeded by his son, Steve, who worked steps away from his father at the office. Mr. Baird remained chairman of the company’s board until recently.

Despite his great success, Mr. Baird lived modestly. He liked to take public transportation and was proud when he got the senior pass, which offered a discount, his son said.

Besides work, Mr. Baird was a White Sox fan and an avid outdoors man. He liked to ski and was still out on the slopes in Aspen when he was 94 years old.

He also was quite handy, too.

He handmade most of his trademark bow ties, his son said.

“He liked the bow ties a certain way. He liked them to be squared instead of butterflied,” Steve Baird said.

The elder Baird liked to needlepoint as well, his son said.

Mr. Baird devoted time to his family, telling his grandchildren he’d take each of them on a trip of their choice, Steve Baird said. Though he didn’t get to all seven grandkid’s wishes, he did travel all over the world — to Vietnam, Cambodia, India and Ireland — with some of them. Some of the trips he took into his 90s.

His wife of 65 years, the former Marian Wood, died in 2007. They met after her family, from New England, sought out Mr. Baird’s family, so they could manage property for them in Highland Park, Steve Baird said.

In addition to Steve Baird, Mr. Baird is survived by sons Wyllys Baird and Orrin Baird, daughter Katharine Mann, seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

A public memorial will be planned, but details are not yet available.


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