The Chicago Lakefront

The Chicago Lakefront, 26 Miles of Scenic Lakefront Parks & Public Spaces, In Perpetuity Since 1836, by Olmsted & Vaux, Nelson, Simonds, Burnham, Atwood, Bennett & Others. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

Overview:

“Forever open, clear and free” aligns with the spirit of a core American ideal, and almost appears to reflect the words, expression and thoughts of the Founding Fathers of our Nation. 

Yet this quote in its fullness “Public ground”—“A common, to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstructions,” was an early ideal and vision of our City’s earliest pioneers and legislators, to protect the Chicago Lakefront and to insure it was accessible to the public. Dating to a year before the City’s incorporation in 1836, this forward-thinking vision was adopted by our City and State, and land was set aside in Chicago for parkland, greenspace and open space near the early lakeshore to be enjoyed by all. In theory, this larger concept is a very democratic ideal.

However, after more than a century of additions and parkland improvements along the lakeshore, recent years have brought various changes and proposals to the Chicago Lakefront which have raised a new awareness of and genuine concerns for this most amazing resource. These extend from the Lakefront sites proposed for the 2016 Olympics which would have adversely impacted almost all of Chicago’s parks, and eliminating thousands of old-growth trees, while adding stadiums and other ancillary structures, to the additions to Soldier Field. Also extending these same adverse and harmful ideas to proposals such as the relocation of the Children’s Museum in Grant Park and the Lucas Museum in Burnham Park.

Jackson Park. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

The proposed 20-acre Obama Presidential Center on the Lakefront in Jackson Park poses a special burden on this tenet of “forever open, clear and free.” We have a remarkable president whose roots are connected to Chicago, and we welcome a center named in his honor located in Chicago. However, the Jackson Park proposal for the Obama Presidential Center would result in a clearing of 20 acres of trees, parklands, recreational facilities and ball fields, many for children, to an expansion and widening of Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue, and impacting more than 400 trees to be cut and discarded. There is the possibility for the loss of more trees, wildlife habitats and migratory flyways for this development, along with roadway expansions and incursions into Jackson Park at both the east and west perimeters of the park. In reality the roadway closures adversely impact other areas of the park, where closed roads are replaced with new asphalt surfaces, thereby widening other nearby streets and Lake Shore Drive.

Northerly Island. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

While Preservation Chicago welcomes the Obama Presidential Center to Chicago and to the South Side, we are of the opinion that nearby private non-parklands would be a more appropriate site for these large structures and this new presidential complex. We also acknowledge that the Chicago parks have fallen into terrible disrepair, with many buildings needing extensive repairs, and in some cases even complete reconstruction to address long-deferred maintenance. It often appears that parkland giveaways have become a remedy for reinvestment in our neglected parks and portions of our Lakefront, which is really tragic, as these should be priorities to protect, maintain and steward in perpetuity. 

Also alarming and of great concern on the Chicago Lakefront are proposed plans for revisioning and an overhaul of North Lake Shore Drive, one of Chicago’s most beautiful thoroughfares. The overhaul plans would rethink the lakefront from Navy Pier near Grand Avenue at the south to Hollywood Avenue at its northernmost border. The project is called “Redefine the Drive: North Lake Shore Drive,” with studies conducted by both the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and the Chicago Department of Transportation(CDOT), has the potential to destroy and ruin many of the unique characteristics of this world-class boulevard and drive.

Southworks: Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

The Lake Shore Drive redefining proposals have included such concepts as removing many of the historic overpasses and bridges, with their scenic vistas, undulating and rolling perspectives as they rise and fall over the dramatic panoramic views of the downtown buildings, the parks and Lakefront. This proposal also extends to the straightening of many of the gentile curves, while also adding vast areas of landfill and high berms, which will often obscure views of Lake Michigan for motorists. It also proposes widening the thoroughfare in certain locations and an underground tunneling of huge areas of the drive from Navy Pier to Oak Street Beach along with some areas to the north. The tunneling for automobile traffic is equivalent to a deep and wide dry riverbed set within a depression in the earth, and it is more akin to sections of Interstate I-90 and I-94–the Dan Ryan Expressway, and I-290–the Eisenhower Expressway than a boulevard fronting parklands and Lake Michigan.

Other sections of Lake Shore Drive will be expanded, with medians and their planted trees cut and removed, shrubbery and perennials lost, and parkland and greenspace incursions in Lincoln Park for new and expanded entry, exit and bus ramps. Preservation Chicago is of the opinion that everyone should have the experience of Chicago’s parklands — whether by walking, jogging, bicycling, or even driving in an automobile. These parklands and Lakefront lands are special to all of us no matter how they are enjoyed in many various ways and experiences.

Foster Ave Bridge. Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky

Yet these public lands and spaces are often looked upon by some as vacant lands expendable for private development when indeed these are developed lands as public places and recreational environments. Some of these lands have been dedicated to the public for more than 150 years, and most all of them for over a century. These are sacred places that belong to us all as a place of refuge, reflection and recreation. These parklands and shoreline allow for a break from our daily lives, and to once again commune with nature — refreshing and energizing one’s spirits. Unfortunately, these same public and sacred grounds are also subject to political giveaways and gifts by elected officials for pet projects, sometimes to the highest bidder. Instead, we should be converting more private lands to public and using air rights over rail yards to expand these parks and lakefront lands, and if necessary, build new museums and facilities on newly created parkland sites.

History:

Our Lakefront, its legendary parks, greenspaces, recreational and pastoral spaces, beaches, harbors and waterfront stretching almost 26 miles is so greatly associated with the City of Chicago and is often noted as “Chicago’s front yard.”  These seminal Lakefront spaces and lands were designed by the best of the best in the world of architecture, landscape architecture and design. From William LeBaron Jenney, to Frederick Law Olmsted, Olmsted & Vaux, Ossian Cole (O.C.) Simonds, Swain Nelson, Jens Jensen, Alfred Caldwell, May McAdams and others. 

These designers, landscape architects and architects were visionaries in their own right. They brought a new series of concepts and ideas with them to an ever-growing industrial American city in one single vision and idea. It was revolutionary in concept and executed on a grand scale, and fashioned like a work of art. These grand plans, the parklands and Lakefront, were published around the world, influenced planning in other cities and forever changed Chicago. Such plans reimagined our city from its industrial core and backbone, with the challenges of an ever-expanding urban population, while continuing to recover from the ashes and tragedy following the Chicago Fire of 1871, to a new one–a city of world renown.

Northerly Island. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

Created with a vision which has grown tremendously since its initial legislation in 1836, the Chicago Lakefront and its parks have been reimagined from its earliest years, and have become a recreational space second to none. From a time when Michigan Avenue was almost the water’s edge, to numerous reclamations by the Illinois Central Railroad in response to a growing city and the demand for goods and transportation, the Chicago Lakefront has undergone a tremendous metamorphosis over time. 

Its parks have been developed and impacted in part by natural features, man-made visions and museum institutions built on marshes, deltas, outcroppings, railroad yards and lands once part of the greater Lake Michigan watershed. From that reclaimed land area grew additional parklands, weaving together such sites and places as the Museum Campus, huge areas of Grant Park, and expanses of lakefront trails and Lake Shore Drive as a recreational boulevard tying together the lakefront and its parks to the inner-city communities that abound to the west. These parklands and much of the shoreline from Calumet Park at the Illinois-Indiana border on the South Side to Downtown, Lincoln Park, Edgewater and to the Evanston border on the far north, unite communities and varying sides of town along with our City together as a whole.

The Lakefront and its park system, continues to be a great vision, which was given credence and acceptance from a broader plan of visionaries at the top of their profession and influenced not only Chicago, but other major centers and cities, across the nation and elsewhere. It was the plans of Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1870s, and the planned vision of architect William LeBaron Jenney, regarded as the father of the skyscraper, who also designed much of our Chicago Boulevard System and our inner-connecting-city parks. It was plans of Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett in the “Plan of Chicago” of 1909, which dared to stir one’s blood—in the famous quote by Daniel Burnham in his presentation to the Commercial Club of Chicago. 

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that will stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

Through the decades, and now for over a century, this has been the guiding spirit of Chicago — to look upon the Lakefront and our waterways beyond industry and transportation properties, and to see it in a new vision. We see it for its impact on the human spirit, the health and recreation of its residents. It was not long ago in our history that both Lake Michigan and the Chicago River were associated with waterborne diseases like Cholera, dysentery and other afflictions. That all began to change at the onset of the 20th century when the health benefits of recreational activities, including those associated with our Lakefront, came to light. To have a perspective on such ideals, look no further than our perspective and views of the Chicago River, which was once treated much like an industrial sewer. Efforts of the late 20th century and that of the past 20 years, have changed so much that we now celebrate the Chicago River and its various branches with the downtown Riverwalk and various trails, both existing and proposed.

Chicago Lakefront: Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

These are some of the special qualities that make Chicago more livable, more special, more inviting and a great city renowned the world over. Such ideals provide a place for people, trees, and wildlife to coexist, They make our city richer — a place of refuge from the toils of daily life and a place to allow one’s self the space to reflect, to imagine and to once again commune with nature and the naturalistic environment whenever the time allows. The Lakefront and our parks allow that change from the buzz, noise and distractions of a large world class city like Chicago. We should do everything possible to retain that vision, and not allow it to be whittled-away or suffer a death by a thousand cuts. We cannot allow incursions, additional buildings and obstructions. If we really respect our parklands and environments, this should be a priority to upkeep and not take a back seat to funding, as these are all of our collective lands.

In addition to the physical and adverse harm to the Chicago Lakefront determined by the Obama Presidential Center during the Federal Section 106 Hearings, the cost to the taxpayers for this project is substantial. Closing roadways, like Cornell Drive, along with portions of Hayes Drive and the Midway Plaisance, and the expansion of South Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue is tremendous and to the estimated figure of $175 million, which will likely increase. This will destroy the historic Olmsted & Vaux roadways, which instead of being closed, should be reduced in width to their original proportions. In the 1960s these historic boulevard roadways and parkways were greatly widened, against the wishes of the community, with hundreds of trees cut and  lost to this expansion. Similar plans were executed for South Lake Shore Drive, with more old-growth trees cut for expansion and a widening of the Drive. It appears that we as a city are repeating such missteps and mistakes once again. At this time in both a city and state in severe financial distress, needing to make some budget cuts and tough decisions, we should not be taking on an undue burden of removing paved roadway surfaces and relocating them elsewhere nearby. There’s also concern about the long-term maintenance of the proposed 230’ tower and ancillary buildings of the Obama Presidential Center, and the public’s commitment to potentially maintain these structures.

North Lake Shore Drive, Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky

Lincoln Park, from cemetery to parkland with additions, is considered to be Chicago’s largest park and one of the oldest of the large public parks. It extends more than six miles along the Lakefront from North Avenue to Hollywood Avenue. Expanded greatly over time, its designers included Swain Nelson and his firm of Nelson & Benson beginning in the 1860s and continuing into the 1880s, and later with Ossian Cole Simmonds and his firm of Simonds and Company in the early 1900s. Large sections of Lincoln Park were extended and formed almost in line with the ancient ridgeline of the Lake. Lincoln Park has grown over the years, even before the Chicago Fire. Originally named Cemetery Park and later Lake Park, Lincoln Park has experienced many expansions and additions over time. It was renamed Lincoln Park after our 16th president Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, following his assassination in 1865. 

One of Lincoln Park’s last major expansions in the 1950s occurred when Lakefront lands associated with the Edgewater Beach Hotel and other entities became part of Lincoln Park. Today, it is one of the City’s most versatile and visited parks. In addition to Lincoln Park Zoo—one of the Nation’s oldest zoos—the park contains numerous beaches, harbors and field houses, more than any other Chicago park.

Jackson Park, Midway Plaisance, and Washington Park were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux, with later additions by Olmsted Brothers, Alfred Caldwell, May McAdams and others. These amazing parks, originally sponsored by the South Parks Commission in 1869 and the years that followed, were long considered the finest of Chicago’s parks and designed by the illustrious firm of Olmsted & Vaux. Olmsted-designed landscapes are treasured the world over. The grouping of these three parks as one united vision was one of the first large and formally planned parks of the vast and expansive Lakefront parks, even if the beginnings of the North Side’s Lincoln Park began a decade earlier.

Jackson Park. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

Jackson Park contains approximately 550 acres of land, lagoons, beaches, harbors, islands, nature sanctuaries, recreational spaces and later an 18-hole golf course. Jackson Park was linked to its sister park, the equally impressive and expansive Washington Park, also designed by Olmsted and Vaux. Jackson Park and the adjoining Midway Plaisance, was also the site of the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, attracting over 27 million visitors to Chicago.

Washington Park, also known for its vast spaces, lagoons, expansive meadows and refectory buildings on 345 acres of land, was actually completed as the first phase of the South Park’s plans by Olmsted & Vaux, noting that the regrading of Jackson Park and its marshy lands would be more expensive and challenging. Both Jackson and Washington Parks are linked by the Midway Plaisance, a linear park, spanning east to west, also created by Olmsted and Vaux in 1870. The Midway is a recessed grassy parkway and knolls of approximately 90 acres—and approximately one-mile in length. It was originally designed as part of a system of canals linking the two parks with Lake Michigan. Still, even as a recessed feature, it exhibits many of the same qualities, even if the water feature—almost a river bed — is a grassy knoll. To this day, these parks are among Chicago’s greatest greenspaces and public assets.

Tree Cut and Removal in Jackson Park for the Widening of Cornell Drive in Following Citizen Protests in September 1965 © Nancy Hays

However, land giveaways and politics, including the plans for the proposed Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, will adversely impact more than the 20 acres that the City and the State of Illinois have gifted to this private venture, which is to include a 230-foot tower and several ancillary buildings. Debate over the proposal and the potential adverse impacts have been ongoing for almost five years, with determinations that the adverse impacts are indeed recognized by a wide group of entities and individuals. If this much-welcomed presidential center to Chicago’s South Side was constructed on vast and available nearby private lands, in lieu of public parklands, the center would have most likely have been constructed and opened by now.

Promontory Point, at 55th Street and Lake Michigan at the southern end of Burnham Park, is in the Hyde Park neighborhood and part of Chicago’s lakefront park system.  “The Point” was created as a WPA project in the 1930s. What had been Lake Michigan was filled with dirt retained by a limestone revetment. The Prairie School landscape design was executed by Jens Jensen’s disciple Alfred Caldwell and included signature council rings, a meadow and native plant material. The park has always welcomed the diverse communities of the South Side and allowed an unusual degree of open water lake swimming. On January 19, 2018 Promontory Point was individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Promontory Point. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

Since 2000 the Promontory Point Conservancy, a community organization representing the Hyde Park community, has been working to prevent the demolition of the historic and beautiful limestone step-stone revetment that surrounds and protects the Point. Governmental agencies had proposed replacing the limestone with a massive concrete structure that was forbidding and prevented citizens from entering the water, but this plan has been suspended. Fifty years ago there were more than sixteen miles of this naturalistic limestone revetment at the water’s edge of Chicago’s lakefront parks. Today all the City’s historic limestone revetment has been replaced by industrial-style concrete, except for what remains at Promontory Point. The Conservancy, with the support of Preservation Chicago, other preservation groups and 5th Ward Alderman Hairston, continues to work with government agencies to ensure that the limestone revetment is restored to its historic character and function.

The South Shore Cultural Center, formerly the South Shore Country Club, joins Jackson Park at its southernmost border at 67th Street. While the South Shore Cultural Center was once a private club, it is now part of the holdings of the Chicago Park District, with vast expansive lands, containing a magnificent series of structures which include a former clubhouse with grand spaces, a colonnade, gatehouse, a nature preserve, and a nine-hole golf course. These former club grounds, designed by architects Marshall & Fox with Thomas Hawkes as the landscape architect, are an integral part of the Chicago Lakefront. Efforts to save the buildings of this amazing former club and develop an extraordinary and evolving nature sanctuary have been a substantive community effort.

Burnham Pavilion in Jackson Park. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

Rainbow Beach, located in the South Chicago community on the southeast side is a 60-acre park fronting Lake Michigan. It was named for the United States Army’s 42nd Rainbow Division following World War I, and parts of the park and beach dated to 1908 when it was known as Rocky Ledge Beach. All this area was united under the Rainbow Beach name in 1959. 

Other South Side parks linked to the Lake Michigan shoreline include Calumet Park, on the far Southeast Side or East Side of the City. It was originally planned and developed in 1904 by the Olmsted Brothers and continued to grow to its current size of 198 acres in the 1930s. The southernmost border of Calumet Park extends to the Illinois-Indiana State Line.

Southworks: Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

The Last Four Miles is a plan that was developed by Friends of the Parks to envision a continuation of lakefront parklands two miles at the far extensions of the city, at both the North and South Sides of Chicago. This plan is a continuation of the plans that were all combined and interwoven ideas captured in Burnham & Bennett’s 1909 “Plan of Chicago,” which has been a guiding principle for Chicago for over a century. Part of the Friends of the Park vision is to convert the brownfields of the former U. S. Steel and Illinois Steel Mills and plants into additional Lakefront recreational lands and facilities. It is a bold plan, but it has not been embraced and funded as it should be since all of our City’s agencies appear strapped for funding. Still, such projects could be a transformational investment in former industrial areas of the Chicago South Side, and also help to provide more protections from an evermore-changing Lake Michigan. These parks not only serve as a recreational aspect for the enjoyment of all, but also as a buffer and sometimes floodplain from the severe waves and actions of the Lake.

With that said, climate change is a reality which is upon us in Chicago. Rising Lake Michigan waters and those of nearby rivers and waterways, coupled with an increase in precipitation, is a reality that we must make accommodations for in the near future. Such issues impact our Chicago Lakefront and parklands, and we should not be building structures upon these areas with a high water table that often flood, as seen in many of our parks. Where there is little to no parkland or land barriers separating the building environment from Lake Michigan, as seen in areas of South Shore and Rogers Park, and portions of Edgewater, the impacts–both financial and emotional on buildings and their residents are substantial. We must plan for the future and both rising temperatures and water levels.

McCormick Place, now known as Lakeside Center at McCormick Place was once known as “the mistake on the Lake.” However, it has the potential to return to an extraordinary Lakefront asset as a year-round fieldhouse and recreational center.

Lakeside Center McCormick Place. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

The original McCormick Place is recognized as an engineering marvel. It was the largest convention hall in the world. Its structure and shear size pushed the limits of the space frame, its cantilevers and the vastness of its cruciform columns were some of the largest such spans. Its sheer vision was developed by the firm C. F Murphy and its principal, Gene Sommers. Helmut Jahn is also associated with the project. It extended from graduate thesis projects and the concepts and ideals of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It was a glass box with a portal to Lake Michigan, separating it from the Arie Crown Theater, the largest theater in the city which anchored its south end.

Chicago Lakefront with Lakeside Center: Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

This building pushed the outer limits of what was possible at the time of its construction, and it was considered as important for its architectural and engineering strides as the city’s superstructures unveiled at the time—including the John Hancock, Sears Tower, Standard Oil Building. This vast structure, once seen as an obstacle to the Chicago lakefront park system when originally constructed in 1960 and rebuilt as a new vision in 1967, has the potential to be Chicago’s largest indoor fieldhouse and cultural center for Bronzeville and the Near South Side. Perhaps this can be rethought as the “Mid-South Cultural Center and Fieldhouse,” the City’s largest indoor recreational facility —  open year-round and as an extension of our parks. It could be free to all Chicago residents. With parking and City’s largest theater the Arie Crown, it could once again be a cultural hub not limited just to special engagements and conventions.

Lakeside Center at McCormick Place, Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky

The approximately 25-acre Millennium Park and 25-acre Maggie Daley Park are two of the newest amenities to Chicago’s Lakefront and downtown area. The parks, opened in 2004 and 2012 respectively, were constructed above former and active railroad lands, once part of reclaimed lands from Lake Michigan. Both parks are interactive and wildly popular destinations for both residents and tourists alike. Millennium Park has many artistic as well as passive recreational and cultural aspects like the Pritzker Pavilion (bandshell) and the Harris Theater. They are credited in part with a renaissance of Chicago’s East Loop area and Grant Park, helping to further embellish Chicago’s Cultural Mile. As one can witness, parks can have a tremendous impact even if at times parks vary in their offerings, uses and qualities. For instance, the pastoral qualities of Jackson Park and Washington Park vary widely from the interactive nature of Millennium and Maggie Daley Park, which the latter is more akin at times to a large lakeside playground. 

Lakeside Center at McCormick Place, Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky

Both are unique in their planning, vision and design. And both often have different types of visitors flocking to them, yet they each offer vastly differing experiences. One variation is a naturalistic vision for both humans and nature, offering a migratory flyway and to give one the sense and visualization of Chicago in a more natural state, and the others being more activity and entertainment focused, constructed mostly on air rights, with a host of activities, services and amenities located below. These extend from underground passages and walkways, to below-grade parking facilities and commuter train lines, which can also serve a downtown working population, as well as residents and visitors.

South Shore Nature Sanctuary. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

Threat:

The Chicago parks are themselves very special and highly celebrated with revered environments containing a variety of grand panoramic spaces, outdoor rooms and vast stretches of Lakefront lands. Some of these parks and spaces contain rigid formal gardens and arrangements with fountains and other features, while others include more naturalistic settings. These parks contain an abundance of extraordinary features including lagoons, islands and native plant species and reflect the once abundant prairies and meadows of our region. Among these artistically arranged settings are open prairies and meadows, beautiful and expansive beaches, and harbors and nature preserves. Historic built environment features of the highest quality, including beautifully crafted museum buildings, conservatories, pavilions, a historic zoo, artistic sculptures, golf courses, pastoral roadways and recreational spaces, frame our panoramic City and skyline in the distance.

With that said, the Lakefront parks have experienced issues in recent years, associated with Chicago’s elected officials and leadership, offering these sometimes as developable lands, which they are not. These areas have been created as greenspaces and parklands, for more than 100 years.

Lack of funding has resulted in our parks starving for resources and in need of substantial repairs. Long-deferred maintenance and straight-up neglect of many aspects of these special features has taken their toll on some of this land.  The list of needs through the park system include repairs and in some situations total reconstruction of collapsing buildings, disintegrating paths and often pockmarked trails, underpasses and bridges. Yet, even with a shortage of funds for maintenance and improvement, our City and State offers millions of dollars and incentives for what could be described as pork projects. This is disappointing, as we as a City we are not always taking into account that these greenspaces, parklands, lakefront spaces and trails, and all of the features of the parks and Lakefront have really all been developed and maintained for more than a century and half by the citizens of Chicago—the taxpayers, residents and visitors.

These parks — regardless of their location — are for all of Chicago, and its visitors. The Chicago Lakefront is a remarkable asset for residents and tourists alike. They are not to be squandered. If the desire is to build new structures, additional properties adjacent to these greenspaces should be considered and made to be extensions of this lakefront land. Rather than taking land from the people and these parks, we should be creating new parklands and new campuses of buildings, surrounded by greenspaces. The broad vision should be expanded, not reduced or cast aside as vacant, undeveloped sites. 

It was Aaron Montgomery Ward, the famous proprietor of the catalog and retail company Montgomery Ward and Company, who understood this grander vision of protecting the Lakefront lands from development. Ward, in his wisdom, challenged even the Field Museum in its plans to construct its new museum, relocated from Jackson Park within the former Palace of Fine Arts (now the Museum of Science and Industry) to Grant Park, where it was proposed in the middle of the park, now the site of Buckingham Fountain. His court challenges were lengthy and costly, and he often questioned if the general public appreciated his efforts, yet we celebrate this victory today, as it reaffirmed “forever open, clear and free…” This legislation is assumed by many residents to apply to the entire Chicago lakefront, yet that does not hold true. We need additional legislation to apply those principles more broadly from the City limits on the South Side to the North Side, and to protect this extraordinary natural resource.

The Field Museum of Natural History was built on former railroad lands, constructed by the Illinois Central Railroad, in exchange for protecting the young City of Chicago from the sometimes-unpredictable forces of Lake Michigan. Early photos of the Field Museum show railroad tracks crisscrossing the site, which would later become the southernmost portions of Grant Park and the beginnings of Burnham Park and later portions of the Museum Campus. Other museums and buildings were constructed on the footprint of buildings that predated them, from The Art Institute of Chicago, built upon the footprint of the Interstate Exhibition Building from 1871, to our more modern buildings in the park like the Museum of Contemporary Art, constructed on the site of the old Chicago Avenue Armory. The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum was constructed on the site of the old North Shops building in Lincoln Park.

Recommendations

Preservation Chicago supports a commitment to the Chicago Lakefront and its many parks, realizing that this is a very special feature of Chicago and a gift to its citizens which is to last in perpetuity. We continue to be grateful for these amazing parks and the great asset of Lake Michigan, its shoreline mostly “forever open, clear and free for all.”  

In the future, the laws protecting the parklands with the “forever open, clear and free to all, without obstruction” regulations in downtown Chicago, specifically Grant Park and elsewhere, should be extended to include protections in perpetuity to the entire Lakefront and Lakefront parks system.

We realize the challenges in managing the vast Lakefront lands, and we want to encourage partnerships realizing the costs associated with this massive endeavor. To that end, we want to encourage the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District to pursue a national park designation for the entire Chicago Lakefront. Chicago can partner with the National Park Services to continue the legacy of protecting this precious resource for the enjoyment of all. Such an idea could lift and share the burden of maintenance of these sacred grounds, providing much-needed repairs to many of the park buildings and structures. 

Burnham Pavilion in Jackson Park. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

Some structures in Jackson Park, like the Daniel Burnham-designed Comfort Station on South Lake Shore Drive near 67th Street, are in a state of near total collapse. The Comfort Station’s roof is buckling and partially collapsed, with its concrete columns delaminating. Another Comfort Station, to the immediate south of the Museum of Science and Industry, is without a roof. Its massive fieldstone walls have been covered in blue tarps for more than two years. This is a sign of a lack of funding and resources to the parks, the long-term impacts of Tax Increment Financing projects and their unintended consequences to both our schools and our public lands and Lakefront. 

The idea of a national park and shared responsibilities for these vast Lakefront parklands would allow for improved maintenance, less privatization of recreational lands and facilities, and access to more funds for new parklands in communities across Chicago. This concept would also free up funds for park programming and services for people of all ages. 

The concept of a national park within the City limits of Chicago could be a huge asset, much like the Pullman National Monument on the City’s South Side potentially drawing additional tourism dollars to our City, which in turn supports both small and large businesses alike. National parks have a tremendous amount of visitors each year to different sites across the nation. The Pullman National Monument–a planned industrial development and community important for its links to architecture, planning, labor history, African-American history and Civil Rights, along with railroad history–is expected to draw 300,000 annual visitors when the former Administration and Clock Tower Building opens as a Visitor Center in the coming year. It would be a tremendous resource for Chicago to have two national parks within its borders, recognizing the significance of these public lands fronting one of the world’s largest freshwater resources–Lake Michigan. 

Recently, the Indiana Dunes State Park and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore became one of our most recent national parks. After years of talk and discussion by numerous politicians and scholars, — including United States Senator Paul Douglas, United States Senator Paul Simon, University of Chicago botanist Henry Cowles, and local resident Dorothy R. Buell of the Indiana Dunes Preservation Council — the Indiana Dunes National Park was realized. This national park stretches along 15 miles of the southern shore of Lake Michigan and includes 15,000 acres of beaches, lakefront, dunes and forested area, just 25 miles from Downtown Chicago.

Southworks: Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

Such ideas should be embraced for the Chicago Lakefront National Park. This could also encourage the former South Works-United States Steel Sites, now a vacant brownfield site, to be transformed into an extension of Chicago’s legendary Lakefront parks. It would fulfill a great obligation and long-term vision with the National Park Service and the Federal Government to assist in the clean-up of this former steel mill and industrial site. It would return these now-toxic land into a public amenity for the people of Chicago and its visitors. 

Similarly, another toxic site exists near the mouth of the Chicago River, where it meets Lake Michigan, located close to Navy Pier in Downtown Chicago. This area of land has been promised to be developed into parkland for many years, and named in honor of Chicago’s first non-native settler, Jean Baptiste DuSable whose home was once located nearby. Recently, developers of several large high-rise building projects, near this site have been tasked with making this toxic brownfield a public park. However, to date those plans have not materialized. However, a U.S. National Park designation may provide the funds required to realize this vision honoring DuSable. 

Preservation Chicago embraces the idea of converting, rather than demolishing, the Lakeside Center at McCormick Place into a Mid-South Side Fieldhouse and Cultural Center. Such a concept would engage this little-used convention center into an indoor extension of the Chicago Lakefront recreational areas and part of the Lakefront Trail.  The large glass-walled halls could serve a variety of recreational programs, from indoor running tracks, basketball and tennis courts, and include both indoor and outdoor cafés and restaurant service.

Lakeside Center at McCormick Place, Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky

As an alternative option, the large glass-walled convention halls with views of the Lakefront and Chicago skyline could also be used for large cultural exhibits, much like the aviation museums of a similar scale in Europe. The lower-level convention halls of the base plinth structure of the Lakeside Center could be repurposed for aquatics, perhaps containing Olympic-sized swimming pools, that could overlook Lake Michigan. Adding windows in the brick walls could transform spaces into additional training facilities, gymnasiums, and community rooms.

All of this could be coupled with a reactivated Arie Crown Theater—the City’s largest theater space—to join the building together as a “Mid-South Bronzeville Cultural Center.” The rooftop of the Lakeside Center, measuring the size of three football fields, could contain a running track, outdoor recreational facilities, a green roof and perhaps a solar-cell network to provide power for the facility. The same could also hold true for the plinth and outdoor platform area, adjacent to the large glass-walled convention rooms, and hold cafes and restaurants, health and wellness classes and be considered an extension of the Lakefront parks. Such ideas would foresee this building as perhaps the world’s largest fieldhouse and cultural center, all under one roof, in a building of great architectural significance.

Chicago Lakefront with Lakeside Center: Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

Lakeside Center at McCormick Place, when constructed, was comparable in both its architectural and engineering achievements to the City’s tallest superstructures like the Sears Tower and John Hancock Building. It was designed by the seminal firm of C. F. Murphy, notable for many large buildings including the Chicago Landmark Richard J. Daley Center and Plaza, and under the direction of architect Gene Sommers and Helmut Jahn. 

The sheer scale of the building is remarkable. It was and perhaps still remains the largest space-frame structure in the world. It is comparable in design to the “Deutsches Museum Flugwerft Schleissheim Museum” in Germany, the Clin d’Ailes Aviation Museum in Estavayer in Switzerland, Payerne Military Aviation Museum, or the National Military Museum in Soesterberg in the Netherlands

It is a remarkable structure, which has the possibility to be one of Chicago’s greatest Lakefront assets and turning what was a building on the Lakefront for conventions into a year-round fieldhouse and cultural facility—an extension of the Lakefront parks under roof. Such ideas would be revolutionary for the Mid-South/Bronzeville/Douglas Community and perhaps even more popular than Millennium Park. It would be in the vein of the famous Daniel Burnham quote: “Make no little plans!”