Prominent Chicago real estate developer dies

December 29, 2013

Michael Puente

John Baird, prominent Chicago real estate developer and champion of fair housing, open space and historic preservation, died on December 27.

The Chicago area has lost one of its most prominent real estate developers, fair housing advocates and building preservationists.

John W. Baird, the one-time head of the venerable Baird & Warner Real Estate company, died Friday at a hospice in north suburban Glenview, about a week after suffering a stroke.

He was 98.

“There is just going to be a multiple numbers of ways that he affects all of us every day in our life going forward in Chicago,” said Lynn Osmond, CEO of the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

Osmond said the foundation recently honored Baird with its lifetime patron award in November.  She said she never knew that he would be gone just a short time later.

“Great architecture can’t happen without a great client and he’s been a client of so many fabulous projects in Chicago,” Osmond said. “A real visionary. He will just be sorely missed.”

A native of Evanston and longtime resident of Winnetka, Baird earned a history degree  from Wesleyan University in 1938 and a master's degree in business from Harvard University in 1940. He then went on to serve as a captain in the Army during World War II.

Following the war, he joined Baird & Warner, the Chicago real estate company founded in 1855 and owned by his family since 1860. In 1963, Baird succeeded his father, Warner G. Baird, as president of the company. He aggressively opened sales offices in Chicago and suburbs, while expanding the company’s commercial mortgage operation.

The company now has 23 brokerage offices with more than $5 billion in sales annually in northern Illinois. In 1991, Baird stepped down as president, opening the door for his son, Stephen W. Baird, the fifth-generation member of the family to lead the company.

John Baird continued to serve as chairman of the Baird & Warner board until shortly before his death.  In the 1960s, Baird led efforts to end housing discrimination in Chicago. He often found himself at odds with fellow members of the Chicago Real Estate Board by appearing before the Chicago City Council where he called for an enactment of an open-housing ordinance.

The ordinance, which passed in 1963 but not before heated debate, barred discrimination in real estate sales "against any person because of his race, color, religion, national origin or ancestry.”  But the ordinance didn’t fully end discrimination due to industry policies against African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews and other minorities. In 1965, Baird continued his work trying to end housing discrimination by resigning from the Chicago Real Estate Board, which his family had helped start, in protest of its discriminatory policies.

“What he did for fair housing, making sure that there was no segregation at all, people could buy houses in whatever neighborhood they chose, which was really radical at the time,” Osmond said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Baird was part of several groundbreaking urban renewal projects such as the Willow-Dayton in Lincoln Park; Campus Green on the Near West Side; South Commons near the Illinois Institute of Technology; and other projects in the Oakland and Lawndale neighborhoods.

Baird was also instrumental in the redevelopment of Printers Row by helping to develop the city’s first loft, converting the 22-story Transportation Building at 600 S. Dearborn Street into 300 apartments.

“The buildings that he saved in neighborhoods is something that we will always treasure,” Osmond said.

Civic involvement was also very important to Baird.

Since 1953, he was a member and served as one of the first presidents of the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council (now the Metropolitan Planning Council.) From 1961 to 1973, he served as a commissioner and then as president of the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission.

For 40 years, Baird served on the Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks.

"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,” said Alicia Berg, who had worked with Baird on preservation efforts, said in a written statement. “There's not a city on earth that wouldn't have benefited from having John Baird as a resident."

Funeral services will be private but a public memorial is being planned.

John Baird's son, Steve Baird, is the president and chief executive officer of Baird & Warner. He's also the chairman of the board for Chicago Public Media, the parent organization of WBEZ.

Follow WBEZ Reporter Michael Puente on Twitter @MikePuenteNews. You can also reach him at mpuente@wbez.org.