Jackson Park: Still Magical

Chicago Jackson Park
Photo Credit: Gene Wagendorf III

Standing behind the Museum of Science and Industry looking south, it’s easy to be transported back in time, to imagine the glimmering White City of the 1893 World’s Fair, to see boats drifting on the lagoon, people waiting in line for a chance to ride the Ferris Wheel. The din of cars starts to fade away, replaced by the chattering of children eagerly dragging their parents towards Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Blink, and you’re back. The park is still and quiet, but the magic lingers.

Although almost all of the Fair’s buildings have vanished (only the Palace of Fine Arts remains, now home to the museum) Jackson Park still has plenty to offer. One of Chicago’s largest and most gorgeous green spaces, the park sprawls south from 56th to 67th street and east from Stony Island to the lake. The lagoon is split in half by landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted’s Wooded Island, which was originally planned to be a completely rustic nature preserve, but through a compromise with Fair administrators was also home to a Japanese Garden. The garden fell into a state of disrepair during the Second World War, ravaged by vandals, but has since been restored as a part of Chicago’s sister city program with Osaka. The Osaka Garden is now home to a simple Noh theater stage, The Moon Brigde, a stone water basin and bubbling waterfall and a kasuga lantern from the World’s Fair.

Just south of the island, where Hayes and Richards intersect, sits the Statue of the Republic, Chicago’s Gold Lady, a recreation of Daniel Chester French’s The Republic, which towered over the Great Basin at the Exposition. Though the current statue is 1/3 the size of its predecessor, on a sunny day you can still see the light glint off of it from the edge of the museum’s southern steps.

Further past the statue lies the Jackson Park Golf Course, which sits adjacent to the South Lagoon and just west of the Jackson Park Yacht Club. For those without a boat or an interest in golf, the park is also one of the premier bird watching destinations in the city. From 1956 to 1971 the US Army leased parts of the land to house a defensive missile base, but when the base was shut down the land was left to grow wild. In 1982, at the request of local residents, the area was christened the Bobolink Meadow and nature sanctuary. Throughout the ’80s the area was seeded with various prairie grasses and wild flowers and today attracts many species of butterflies and birds, as well as muskrats, beavers, turtles and dragonflies.

Sixty-third Street Beach sits at the edge of Jackson Park along the lake. The recently rehabbed beach house features beautiful grass and stone courtyards and ivy-covered walls. The southern tip of the beach has been marked as part of the Park District’s Dune Restoration Project, where the plan is to remove invasive plant species and improve fish and migratory bird habitats, restoring the area’s natural beauty. The easternmost tip of the beach, where Hayes Drive stretches out into Lake Michigan, provides one of the more unique views of the park, Promontory Point, and the city’s famous skyline.

As if there isn’t enough to do with all that’s been mentioned, Jackson Park also houses Chicago’s only public bowling green, where the Lake Side Lawn Bowling Club holds their matches before taking tea in the clubhouse. The park also features two walking trails, two basketball courts and a large soccer field.

While the grandeur of the Columbian Exposition is now just a footnote in Chicago’s history, Jackson Park hasn’t faded away. The fair grounds are as alive as ever — there’s always something going on.

Gene Wagendorf III

About Gene Wagendorf III

Gene is a writer who has spent his entire quarter century of life as a resident of Chicago. When not exploring the city he can be found wandering flea markets and garage sales or having a cigarette between classes at Northeastern Illinois University, where he hopes to acquire a degree in the next quarter century. His favorite smells are old books and bowling alleys. His poetry (how embarrassing!) can be found in issues of Kill Poet, Ditch, Word Riot, O Sweet Flowery Roses and Vowel Movements.

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