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The Sitdown: Marshall Bennett, 92, has quietly  redesigned the area landscape during his lifetime

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Updated: May 14, 2014 6:16AM

It was the Depression — I wanted to go to the University of Chicago. I went to the dean of admissions, and he said “no” in a very nice way. I kept coming back. Each time, I talked to someone lower on staff so that by the eighth or 10th time, I was talking to the janitor. By this time, the dean said, “You’ve been here so many times. That takes a lot of guts. I will give you half a scholarship and a job.”

It was World War II, and I wanted to sleep in a bed and not on the ground. So I joined the Navy and served for five-and-a-half years. I was a skipper — a captain — on a submarine chaser-boat that dropped depth charges. I don’t think we ever saw a submarine.

I had my degree in labor relations. It was hard to get a job during the Depression — almost impossible. I thought I’d join the civil service. But Louis Kahnweiler and I started talking; we used to know each other and play poker together. He is a great guy. He is 94. He suggested I work for him.

Meanwhile, I had met and become good friends with Jay Pritzker. I had heard that something was going on west of O’Hare Airport with big power lines going up. We cold-called the homebuilders on the property, the Central Texas Construction Co., called Centex. I said, “I’d like to buy industrial land.”

Clint Murchison says, “If Pritzker puts up $5 million for the land, we’ll put up
$5 million for improvements.” Jack [Pritzker] said, “We’ll give them 10 percent of the total [in real estate sales revenues].” We developed it inside of three or four years.

This pier was built for shipping purposes in 1915. It was used for storage. It was a bypass. I said, “This thing could be a remarkable place to have things happen.” I called the Urban Land Institute.

Think out of the box. I asked for all the various interests, like Friends of the Park, to come into federal court and tell me exactly what they thought should be done. We let them talk as long as they wanted. We did this for three weeks. I gave the books to the Urban Land Institute, and I picked a team of seven professionals to implement it.

I’ve tried to talk people into building a hotel there, way out on the end of the pier, and to take people there.

Two weeks I was in a coma [after a kayaking accident in Idaho at age 56]. My daughters meditated and played music at my bed at Evanston Hospital. The doctor told my wife, “I think he’s going to be a vegetable if he lives, and I don’t think he will live.” I say now that I’m a turnip. I keep turning up.

I had a big hole in my head for six months. The doctors put a plate in. I saw double. I could hardly sit up. I talked like an idiot. I felt like I had a cage over my head. I had to learn to walk and talk all over again. I didn’t go back to the office for a year and a half.

My attitude had been, “I’ve got to be the richest guy in town.” After that, I said, “I have to give it back.” The first thing I did was to give a big hunk of money to Evanston Hospital and its brain neurosurgery unit.

We got the only one of 50 buildings that VOA Architecture did in the United States — they do most of their work in China — and it is one of a few skyscrapers to achieve LEED Gold Certification for the many ways it saves energy.

The vertical campus design makes it the tallest academic building in the nation after the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. The Urban Land Institute has recognized it as among the 10 most innovative new programs among graduate real estate schools nationwide. [Developer] Jerry [Gerald] Fogelson and I had this idea for the finest school in the real estate business. I call this the Wharton of the West.

And by design, we’re in
the exact center of the Burnham Plan. That’s pretty good.


Twitter: @sandraguy

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