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Lincoln Park, Old Town

Chicago History Museum Unveils Final Plans For Plaza Renovation, History Trail Construction

The Chicago History Museum's $10 million park beautification project could be finished by October.

A final conceptual drawing of the Chicago History Museum's plaza renovation, which is pending approval.
Provided/Chicago History Museum
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LINCOLN PARK — The Chicago History Museum could begin work this spring on an outdoor, educational trail and renovation to its back plaza, which had been leaking water into the museum’s archival storage facility.

Representatives from the museum presented their final plans for the $10 million water-proofing and park beautification project during a virtual town hall Thursday.

If approved by the Chicago Park District, the project would weather-proof the half-moon-shaped plaza behind the museum, which sits directly above its archival collection in the basement, and improve the surrounding parkland with an interactive history trail.

Construction could begin as early as late February and be finished by October, said Kris Nesbitt, chief strategic initiatives officer at the museum. Crews have already begun relocating the basement archives ahead of construction.

“Making the plaza waterproof has been the genesis for the project in the first place because it currently leaks,” said Andy Anway, founder of Amaze Design, a Boston-based design firm working on the project.

The plaza was installed 30 years ago as the roof of the museum’s east basement, but the structure has worn down over time, causing water to trickle underground after rain or snow.

“There’s an irreplaceable precious collection beneath the plaza, so any penetration [of water] through the roof would be a tremendous violation of good collections protocol,” Anway said.

None of the museum’s archival collection has been damaged, but it could be if the plaza isn’t renovated, said Michael Anderson, director of institutional advancement and major gifts at the museum.

Designers said they were also focused on connecting the plaza, which is usually home to summer events like movies in the park and the annual Fourth of July celebration, more seamlessly to the surrounding area.

Currently, the plaza is bordered by a hedges that restrict access to the area and obscure views of the surrounding parkland. Scott Rabiet, owner of Amaze Design, said those hedges will be replaced with broad turf steps that open up the area.

Credit: Provided/Chicago History Museum
A final conceptual drawing of the Chicago History Museum’s plaza renovation, which is pending approval.

The turf steps will be broken up with planting areas for ornamental trees and two pergolas that sit on each side of the plaza, Rabiet said. Each pergola will have benches where people can sit facing inward to the museum’s back entrance or outward to the park.

A raised pedestal will complete the plaza. It will look like planters when a viewer is facing the museum, but it reads “Chicago is yours” when looking out onto the park, Rabiet said.

“I think everyone is going to want to stand here and get their photo taken either facing [the Abraham Lincoln statue] on one side or the museum on the other,” Rabiet said.

The pedestal will be decorated with a large, red star from the city’s iconic flag and is one of several stops on the planned history trail, Rabiet said. Each stop will build on a motif of “Chicago is …,” with words like “resilient” and “bold.”

The history trail will incorporate the park’s existing pathways, still using the corner of North Avenue and Clark Street as the main entrance to the area, said Scott Byron, of Scott Byron & Co., the landscape architecture team working with Amaze Designs.

But a path will be added that loops around the entire parkland, connecting its main entrance to a second entryway at LaSalle Drive and Clark Street, Byron said.

The history trail will incorporate existing features, like the Chicago Fire Relic, a hunk of molten metal from the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, and the Couch Tomb, a small building and one of the last reminders the area once housed the Chicago City Cemetery.

Among the new locations will be a native species garden, where children can identify native species to the area and trace illustrations of the plants etched into the garden’s boulders.

“The idea is that you bring people into the park and create an experience that links the Chicago History Museum with the history of the city and the park itself together,” Byron said.

The history trail’s presentation was well-received by neighbors, who praised its interactive, child-friendly activities.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) also supported the project, saying “it’s a wonderful way to bring the museum alive.”

The Chicago History Museum has fundraised about 80 perent of the $10 million needed to complete the project, Anderson said. Donations to the museum can be made online.

Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.

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