Chicago, Ill. – John W. Baird, prominent Chicago real estate developer and champion of fair housing, open space and historic preservation, died on December 27 in a Glenview hospice after suffering a stroke eight days earlier. He was 98.
Mr. Baird was known for his understated style and dedication to causes that often seemed at odds with his personal financial interests—prompting the architect Laurence O. Booth, with whom he worked on many projects, to deem him “the ultimate American, the Gary Cooper of real estate.”
A native of Evanston and longtime resident of Winnetka, Mr. Baird received a degree in history with distinction from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1938 and a master’s degree in business from Harvard University in 1940 before serving as an Army captain during World War II.
After the war, he joined Baird & Warner, the venerable Chicago real estate company founded in 1855 and owned by his family since 1860. In 1963, he succeeded his father, Warner G. Baird, as president of Baird & Warner and moved aggressively to open sales offices throughout the city and suburbs and expand the company’s commercial mortgage operation.
Mr. Baird served as president of the company until 1991, when he was succeeded by his son, Stephen W. Baird, the fifth-generation member of the family to lead the company. Until shortly before his death, Mr. Baird served as chairman of the board of Baird & Warner, which currently operates 23 brokerage offices with sales of more than $5 billion annually in northern Illinois as well as mortgage and title units.
Beginning in the 1960s, Mr. Baird led efforts to end housing discrimination in Chicago. As president of the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council, in 1962 he became something of a pariah to fellow members of the Chicago Real Estate Board by appearing before the Chicago City Council and calling for enactment of an open-housing ordinance.
The ordinance, which passed after a heated debate in 1963, ostensibly barred discrimination in real estate sales “against any person because of his race, color, religion, national origin or ancestry”—a promise that would long remain unfulfilled—in the face of industry policies that perpetuated de facto discrimination against blacks, Hispanics, Jews and other minorities.
In 1965, Mr. Baird resigned from the Real Estate Board, which his family had helped start, in protest of its discriminatory policies. In later years, after open housing had become the law of the land, he insisted that it had not been a particularly intrepid thing that he’d done but, simply, “the right thing.”
During the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Baird was instrumental in several groundbreaking urban revitalization projects, including Willow-Dayton in Lincoln Park; Campus Green on the Near West Side; South Commons near the Illinois Institute of Technology; and other projects in Oakland and Lawndale. He also was instrumental in the redevelopment of Printers Row, including the city’s first loft conversion—that of the 22-story Transportation Building at 600 S. Dearborn St. into 300 apartments.
Mr. Baird was active in civic affairs from the 1950s into the early years of the second decade of the 21st century. He was a member and one of the first presidents of the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council (now the Metropolitan Planning Council) from 1953 until his death. From 1961 to 1973, he served first as a commissioner and then as president of the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission.
As a longtime board member of the Trust for Public Land, he was instrumental in the Trust’s first Chicago land-conservation project—Senka Park on 13 acres of former Grand Truck and Western R.R. land on the city’s Southwest Side—and later the development of Ping Tom Park on the Chicago River in Chinatown, and, most recently, the Bloomingdale Trail, the centerpiece of The 606. He served on the Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks for 40 years—until May 2013, when he was designated Commissioner Emeritus and the John Baird Award for Stewardship in Historic Preservation was created in his honor.
Mr. Baird also served in various capacities with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and in 1996 he co-founded NeighborSpace, a nonprofit urban land trust dedicated to helping community groups maintain gardens.
In November 2013, Mr. Baird was honored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation for “his outstanding contributions to Chicago’s built environment.” At the presentation, Alicia Berg, who had worked with him for many years on preservation efforts, said, “Project by project, he has transformed the city we all love—and in the process, he has been instrumental in making this one of the most livable big cities in the world . . . There’s not a city on earth that wouldn’t have benefited from having John Baird as a resident.”
At various times during his career, he served as a director of Carson Pirie Scott & Co., the Harris Bank, Chicago Title & Trust Co., and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
An avid athlete, Mr. Baird owned a home in Aspen, Colorado, where he skied until he was 94. He also enjoyed hiking and played tennis well into his 90s.
Mr. Baird was well known for his generosity. Beneficiaries of his philanthropy included Protestants for the Common Good, which he co-founded; various conservation and preservation initiatives and programs designed to alleviate homelessness; and Wesleyan University, his alma mater, from which he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1992 after serving many years as a trustee. He also established the Baird Family Endowment for the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.
Mr. Baird’s wife of 65 years, the former Marian Wood, a nationally ranked tennis player, preceded him in death in 2007, at age 91. In addition to his son, Stephen, Mr. Baird is survived by two other sons: Wyllys Baird of Chicago and Orrin Baird of Washington, D.C.; a daughter, Katharine Mann of Chicago; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Services will be private, but a public memorial is being planned.