CITY HALL — The Art Deco-style rainbow pylons along North Halsted Street that pay homage to LGBT history are one step closer to gaining status as Chicago landmarks.
On Thursday, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted unanimously to approve a preliminary recommendation that Boystown’s 20 rainbow pylons, which collectively form the outdoor museum and memorial known as the Legacy Walk, be designated city landmarks.
The 25-foot-tall pylons run along Halsted Street between Bradley Place and Melrose Street, guiding residents and visitors along the stretch’s many LGBT-owned and themed shops and restaurants, and helped establish Halsted as “the country’s first LGBTQ commercial, entertainment and cultural center officially recognized by a city government,” according to a report submitted to the commission on the project.
Matt Crawford, an architectural historian and the project manager for the report, said the pylons and bronze Legacy Walk plaques meet multiple criteria for landmark status, including their connection to the community’s heritage, architecture, distinctive theme as a district, and that the structures are in good shape.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the city would push for landmark status of the structures in June of 2018, calling the Legacy Walk “not only a historically significant legacy of the LGBT community of Chicago, but a signal that the entire city is a safe and welcoming place for everyone.”
The exhibit straddles the 44th and 46th Wards, and both Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) and Ald. James Cappleman (46th) have expressed support for the landmark designation.
The unique pylons were installed under former Mayor Richard M. Daley as part of a series of streetscape projects across the city and “as a gesture of recognition of Chicago’s North Side LGBTQ community.” The statues were dedicated in 1998.
Architecture firm DeStefano + Partners spearheaded the $3.2 million beautification project, which made national news as “the first time a city government officially recognized, and thereby legitimized, [an] LGBTQ community.”
In 2012, the Legacy Project, a nonprofit organization, chose the rainbow pylons as the site for an exhibit focusing on LGBT history.
Each pylon was adorned with a bronze plaque that paid tribute to a notable LGBT figure, event or fact. The plaques serve as a memorial, educational source and the country’s first outdoor LGBT museum.
Currently, the Legacy Walk showcases 40 plaques featuring influential people such as Frida Kahlo, Jane Addams, Sally Ride, Leonard Bernstein and Alan Turing, as well as historical events such as the Stonewall Riots.
Inspiration for the Legacy Walk came after Chicago LGBT activist Victor Salvo and friends attended the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, where he watched as the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was unveiled for the first time, for which he’d sewn 12 patches.
During the same era, he also watched as the destructive disease ravaged the LGBT community.
“This project was conceived during a time when we thought we were all going to die,” Salvo told the commission Thursday. To honor the survivors, as well as those who perished, Salvo wanted to “create an accessible outdoor memorial that could reach future generations” with bronze plaques containing biographies of “people and role models that have been hidden in history and could easily be lost,” according to the report.
Individuals from across the world are nominated to be memorialized and celebrated via the museum.
Crawford said the pylons are maintained by the city’s Department of Transportation.
Kim Hunt, executive director of Pride Action Tank and a member of the Legacy Project’s board, told the commission the landmark designation would protect the “defined gayborhood” from changing in the same ways other LGBT neighborhoods — like the Castro in San Fransisco and Greenwich Village in New York — have.
“Places like where Stonewall happened are dying due to gentrification,” Hunt said. “We can make Chicago an international site for LGBT culture.”
One person spoke in opposition of the project, arguing that “we’re all special” and that each “group” does not need its own district.
The landmark designation still needs City Hall approval.
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