Promontory Point Park: Chicago Reimagined

promontory point park view of lake michiganClick here to see more photos of Promontory Point Park

Regardless of how many people are scattered along the grass and rocks, Chicago’s Promontory Point Park feels tucked away, almost personal. Though it’s not a secret, it’s yours when you’re there, and yours alone.

Perhaps the city’s most enchanting feature, which is no small note of praise, the Point was originally constructed from a landfill and opened to the public in 1937. So you’re saying to yourself, ok, it’s a beach. There’s sand… well, some anyway, and rocks and grass. What makes this so special? The Point brings together Chicago’s two most spectacular aesthetic gems, its skyline and Lake Michigan, and reimagines them.

As you amble East on 55th street towards the lake, the road runs into some grass fields and a rather uninviting Lake Shore Drive underpass. The tunnel has an ominous look to it — knocked out lights and gibberish graffiti — the kind of thing you’d pass by a million times without much desire to go through. If you were to walk through the tunnel you’d find yourself coming out at the mouth of a peninsula that juts out into the lake. A raised meadow in the center section of the twelve-acre plot is usually dotted with kids tossing Frisbees and rabbits darting from shade to shade. A concrete path loops around the field, and if you can dodge the bikers you’ll find a series of stone “council rings,” now used as fire pits, populated by groups with marshmallows and coolers full of definitely not-beer (because, you know, that’s not legal).

Four tiers of limestone and boulder create a prehistoric staircase leading to a promenade that provides a completely unique view of the downtown skyline. The layout of the rocks against the revetment and the boulders beneath the water creates a tumultuous section of lakefront that provides Chicagoans with a free monster wave demonstration on even the subtlest of windy nights. A series of stone slabs zigzag along the main section of the promenade, probably to ensure that as the waves shoot overhead they don’t carry onlookers into the lake, but are most often used by people to brace themselves over the waters edge or sitting and making out. The north end of the Point tends to be the most populated, as anyone with a camera or sketchbook would be remiss not to attempt to capture a southern view of the city:  its westward bend and swoop upward, the way it winds down from the tops of towers like the slops of a brontosaurus, dropping down into the tail, Navy Pier.

The Promontory Point Field House, located on the east end of the meadow, has long been a popular site for weddings and family reunions, as it sits unobtrusively tucked into the trees with a middle tower that stirs images of old east coast lighthouses.  During the Cold War the park also featured a 150-foot radar tower that was part of the Nike Hercules Missile Defense System. It was dismantled in 1971.

In January of 2001 the City of Chicago made public very controversial renovation plans for the Point, including the removal of the historic limestone steps and a replacement concrete and steel structure. The city has long homogenized its beaches, installing long concrete breakers and steel revetments, leaving many neighborhood beaches without much natural charm. The Park District itself nominated Promontory Point for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and a 1983 Memorandum of Agreement between the city and the Army Corps of Engineers (who funded research relating to the refurbishing of the old revetment) called for the preservation of the historic limestone revetment.

Alderman Hairston created The Community Task Force for Promontory Point who, along with the Hyde Park Historical Society, the University of Chicago and have been negotiating with the city and conducting studies that confirm the superiority of limestone breakers to the city’s concrete and steel on both a pragmatic and aesthetic level. presents an excellent quote from Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Colombian Exposition: “[Chicago has] but one natural object at all distinctively local, which can be regarded as an object of much grandeur, beauty or interest. This is the lake.” Olmsted never lived to see the visually stunning rise of the city as a whole piece of art, and he may have been appalled at the rampant expansion of steel and glass over rock and flower, but that is a quibble of medium, not an indictment of beauty. Chicago now boasts two wholly original, grand and beautiful features, the lake and its own skyline. Promontory Point is a trip down the rabbit hole in that sense, where our little piece of planet can be picked up, turned around, flipped upside down and seen all over again with new eyes. If you can have that, and a gorgeous place to share a bottle of wine with a special girl or guy, well, what are you still doing reading this?

Flickr Credit: Kim Scarborough / CC BY 2.0
and Jackie Berkery

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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