Community advocates celebrate Promontory Point’s landmark status

Promontory Point – Marc Monaghan

Staff Writer

The Promontory Point, 5491 S. Shore Dr., was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, last month by the National Park Service. Members of the community and elected officials for many years fought to preserve it and made its newly cemented landmark status possible.

Community residents under the Community Task Force on Promontory Point submitted the nomination for historic landmark status for the Promontory. The process includes collaboration with local, state and federal preservation agencies.

The Task Force has fought for access to the lakefront and the park’s preservation since 2001. The Task Force has also called for a historically responsible restoration of the Point for almost 20 years, as mentioned in a previous article in the Herald.

National landmark status for the Promontory Point, according to Amy Hathaway, national register and survey specialist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, is “primarily an honorific designation where you’re getting outside dispassionate approval of something saying that it has significance,” as mentioned in a previous article in the Herald.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources considers things like architecture and historical significance when examining nominations that are under consideration for historic landmark status.

Julia Bachrach, a retired park historian at the Chicago Park District, prepared the nomination papers for the Promontory. “It’s important to the community it’s a beloved place. It’s one of the most democratic parks in Chicago because it appeals to such a broad range of people,” Bachrach said.

In the 1980s high water levels from Lake Michigan threatened the Chicago shoreline. At the time The Chicago Park District, the Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Chicago developed a plan to rebuild the limestone step revetment along the lakefront.

The entities signed a Memorandum of Agreement under “the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards to ensure that the project would protect the historic value of the structure,” according to Preservation Chicago.

Construction was due to begin in the 1990s but was stalled due to public outcry. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency halted the project but later shifted its position in favor of the concrete and steel reconstruction.

According to a previous article in the Herald, in 2001, the city began a project to overhaul the Point’s loose retaining wall or revetment. Much of the shoreline abutting Lake Shore Drive had already been reinforced with a concrete sea-wall-like structure, and the city, using a combination of federal, state and local money, intended to work with the Army Corps of Engineers to give the park a similar design. Some in the community, though, worried that leaders had been too hasty.

The plan, which would have replaced the existing limestone wall with a concrete one, risked changing the character of the park and restricting access to the lake.

As a member of Congress, former U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. worked with the community on the project as well as in Congress. Jackson worked alongside then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama; he managed to slow down the Army Corps of Engineers work, bringing the project back to the drawing board at public hearings in the mid-2000s.

“I think this is good news for the community and the alderman [Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th)] and the Chicago Park District,” said Hyde Park Resident Jack Spicer, a member of the task force in a previous article in the Herald. “Promontory Point is something we should all be proud of.”

Spicer has been actively involved with the efforts to preserve and restore the Promontory Point.

“It’s something that’s long overdue it has always been a local treasure, and I’m glad I was able to work with the community to achieve this status,” said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th).

The designation does not include restrictions on what the owner—which in this case is the City of Chicago—may do with their property up to and including destruction unless the property receives federal funds.

The landmark status also calls for consideration for federally assisted projects. Section 106 of the National Preservation Act of 1966 requires that Federal agencies allow an advisory council to comment on all plans affecting historic properties that are listed in the National Register. A section 106 review process is currently underway in Jackson Park related to the construction of the Barack Obama Presidential Center.

The Promontory Point now joins 80,000 other nationally recognized historic sites that are listed individually listed in the Register.

Community members who worked on the process toward nomination hope that the designation green lights long overdue restoration for the Point, said Michael Scott, a member of the Community Taskforce on the Promontory.

“Not only can we avoid having it destroyed maybe now the Park District will move forward with fixing it so that it goes back to the original limestone design,” Scott said. He added that it would cost much less to restore it to its original glory with limestone versus paving it over with concrete.

“Looking to the future this nomination deserves that recognition and perhaps a plaque not only [displaying] that it’s part of the national register [but] what the point means this important to be able to convey that visitors and people arrive at the point,” said Ward Miller, president of Preservation Chicago.

A brass plaque that is permanently installed on the site usually identifies property surrounding the site. This process would be the responsibility of the owner, the Chicago Park District. The plate ranges in cost between $500 – $1,000 and could be attached to a limestone block that is similar to what was used to create the revetment.

The Promontory Point is 40 acres and is located along the south end of Chicago’s Burnham Park.

Landscape architects Alfred Caldwell and architect Emanuel V. Buchsbaum produced plans for the site and its stone pavilion in the 1930s. Space is now used primarily for relaxation, picnic, swimming, cultural programs classes and other special events.