The ladies in the fur coats, the limousines carting the big shots, arrived at about the same time as Ben. Ben, a sculpted horse, arrived in a flatbed truck.

In fact, Ben’s installation was the reason they were all there. He’s the final touch in the transformation of Seneca Park from a run-down, little-used patch of Gold Coast land into a small but significant Park District success story.

“We’re often critical of the Park District, so it’s good to be able to say ‘Nice job,'” says Erma Tranter, executive director of the Friends of the Parks watchdog group. “What the Park District and the community have created here is a little respite from skyscrapers, a little public ground in the middle of the city. I predict that when spring comes, this park will be bustling.”

The park’s supporters call it a model for other neighborhoods–although, to be honest, few communities have the clout, money, and other resources that rebuilt Seneca. It’s located in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Mies van der Rohe Drive, one block south of Water Tower Place.

All told, it took about $400,000–$325,000 of it from private contributions–to rebuild Seneca. The project’s chief overseer was Marc Schulman, president of the multimillion- dollar company Eli’s Chicago’s Finest Cheesecake. It was Schulman’s dream to have the park rebuilt and its play lot named for his father, restaurateur Eli Schulman. Among those who helped were Oprah Winfrey, Bobby Short, and Mayor Daley. It’s unlikely that these folks (or their friends) have the time, the energy, or the inclination, however, to help rebuild all the parks and play lots in the less fashionable sections of Chicago.

Schulman has nevertheless pledged to enlarge on the success of Seneca’s rehabilitation.

“Maybe we can’t match the scale of this park in every community, but other neighborhoods can rebuild their parks,” says Schulman. “Other neighborhoods have already done this. It takes a lot of effort and leadership from within the community. We’d be glad to help anyone with advice.”

The story of Seneca’s reconstruction began on May 7, 1988, when Schulman’s father died of a heart attack. A self-made millionaire, Eli Schulman began his career running Eli’s Ogden Huddle, a coffee shop on the west side. For a time in the 1950s and ’60s he ran Eli’s Stage Delicatessen, a Rush Street-area hangout for show-biz celebrities. His last restaurant, Eli’s the Place for Steak, is a gathering spot for politicians and sports celebrities.

“I wanted to do something for my father,” says Schulman. “He was a part of Chicago, and I didn’t want people to forget him after he had passed. It’s one thing to say, ‘You’re a great guy,’ and then you pass away and no one remembers. I wanted to leave something behind for my dad.”

Schulman decided to rebuild the park, located across the street from Eli’s the Place for Steak, as a lasting tribute to his father. Two years ago it was little more than a litter-filled lot enclosed by an ugly cyclone fence. The swings were rusty; there was little grass or any other greenery. Hardly anyone used it, even on nice days–except Eli Schulman.

“On nice days, my father liked to sit there and read the paper,” says Schulman. “But it was so underused, which is a shame. Because when you think about it, there’s no parks from Grant Park to Lincoln Park. There are very few public places where you can sit and just enjoy the sunshine.”

So Schulman went to the local politicians–42nd Ward Democratic Committeeman George Dunne and Alderman Burt Natarus. They put him in touch with Park District officials, who told him he was in luck. The Park District was in the midst of an ambitious five-year, $12.5 million play-lot-renovation program, initiated by board member Walter Netsch.

“The Park District has committed itself to redoing every play lot in the city,” says Tranter. “That’s quite a project; there are about 500 playgrounds. They plan to do 100 a year, and be finished in five years. The problem is that most of these play lots were poorly designed to begin with. They’re made of concrete, which doesn’t make sense because you have kids who play hard, and when they fall they crack their heads. It’s better to put wood chips on the ground, or plant as much grass as you can. You want a soft surface, any way you can get it.”

When Schulman took his idea to community groups, he found several allies. Many area residents feel that Michigan Avenue has been overbuilt in the last few years, as developers cram in as many high-rise monstrosities as they can. Naturally these people were all for rebuilding a park. For other people, less inclined to activism, the move to revamp Seneca was a safe, easy, noncontroversial crusade.

“We didn’t have to do much of a sales job–as soon as we told people that we planned to fix up the park, they were delighted to help,” says Schulman. “They saw the advantages right away. The hotels saw it as an amenity for their guests. The parents who live in the high rises saw it as a place where they could take their kids. The idea just took off.”

He formed the Eli M. Schulman Playground/Seneca Park Reconstruction Committee, which included his wife, Maureen, his mother, Esther, and several nearby residents.

The Park District told them that they would have roughly $75,000 to spruce up the park and rebuild the play lot. Schulman and his allies then told Park District landscape architect Maria Whiteman to forget about price restrictions and indulge her wildest dreams. She returned with a scheme that called for new walkways, lights, and benches, as well as rows of Japanese lilac trees and two sets of upscale play-lot equipment, including a (stationary) choo-choo train imported from Denmark.

“The park is what I call a series of four urban living rooms,” says Netsch. “It is divided by the walkway into four zones. You have two different playgrounds for different age levels of children. And you have two quiet zones, where adults can gather. It’s enclosed by a wrought-iron fence, which is a very nice touch.”

The reconstruction committee raised part of the money required with a fund-raiser last October that featured pianist Bobby Short. About 500 people attended, including Mayor Daley and Jesse Madison, the Park District’s executive vice president.

“Governor Thompson was supposed to come, but at the last minute he couldn’t make it,” says Schulman. “He was very disappointed. Oprah lives in Water Tower and is a big supporter, but she couldn’t make it either. She sent a $5,000 contribution.

“It was packed for the fund-raiser. We put together a silent auction and auctioned off trips to Aspen, France, and LA. For the auction, we packaged things together that would bring in more money. For instance, we put the two round-trip tickets to LA–contributed by Midway Airlines–with a hotel in LA, and you could go to see the show thirtysomething. There is a woman on the committee whose brother produces that show. We called on our friends. That’s how you get things done.”

It was after the fund-raiser that they decided on some sculpture for the park. “We wanted something that would become identifiable with the park,” says Schulman. “It had to be something that kids and adults could identify with.”

So they called in Bruce Guenther, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Guenther came up with ten suggestions, and the committee chose Deborah Butterfield’s Ben. After that, it was just a matter of negotiating a price.

“The horse was perfect for a lot of reasons,” says Netsch. “[Eli] Schulman loved to bet on horses. There used to be horses in the fire station next door. And of course Deborah Butterfield is a wonderful artist. [My wife and I] had one of the first Butterfield horses. It cost $600. This horse cost $100,000. She’s doing very well.”

On February 27, about 50 people–including four policemen on horseback–gathered in Seneca Park to watch Ben’s installation. The sculpture is made of pieces of timber that are cast in bronze.

“The horse is ideal, because it evokes a culturally shared idea that begins with a child’s first encounter with Black Beauty,” Guenther explained. “[Butterfield] seeks to evoke the presence of a life force. She also invests the horse with a human face. It has qualities of curiosity; you’ll notice that the head is turning around, as if it were sniffing the wind. And yet it is also a massive horse–big, solid, and male.

“The whole process of this horse–how it was made and what it is made of–will fascinate people. Kids will touch it. You will want to measure the texture. It’s impervious to the weather. You will want to pet its nose. I predict the nose will become shiny over the years from all the children touching it. The horse will become a great symbol of this park, a poetic evocation of something in the American ethos about horses and country. And it will all be coming together in this park–it’s perfect!”

After Ben was safely cemented into its stand, Netsch, the Schulmans, Tranter, Madison, Natarus, and other dignitaries gathered around it to be photographed.

“I love this park because it represents community,” says Schulman. “A guest from a nearby hotel saw the park and asked for a key; he thought it was a private park. But it’s not. It’s a community park; it belongs to the people. That’s what makes it so special. It’s not the dollar amount that we raised. It’s how we were able to bring people together. That’s what other communities can learn from us. I’m not advocating that every neighborhood raise $400,000. Obviously they’ll have a hard time doing that. What you have to learn is to never sell yourself short. If you work hard and keep together, there’s almost nothing you can’t do.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.