LINCOLN PARK — The Chicago History Museum has completed a project transforming the 4.5 acres of parkland behind the museum into an educational history trail.
The Jaffee History Trail opened earlier this month after several months of construction that started this spring. The path behind the museum, 1601 N. Clark St., features stops where visitors can learn about the city’s history and character.
It also transforms the museum’s back plaza area into a more open space that overlooks the parkland and has seating for people to stop and rest.
“It’s been so exciting to finally watch people interacting with the space,” said Kris Nesbitt, chief strategic initiatives officer for the museum. “We’re already seeing people coming up on the plaza to make use of all the seating there now, and it’s wonderful seeing people interact with the trail.”
Each stop of the trail builds on the motif of “Chicago is …” with words like “resilient,” “complex” and “connected” to tell the story of Chicago’s history.
The “Chicago is resilient” stop features a 7-ton Great Chicago Fire relic, a giant hunk of melted metal forged when an old hardware store burned in the fire, Nesbitt said. Visitors will learn about the fire, how Chicago rebuilt and how the disaster shaped the city’s identity.
“The fire relic was unearthed a few decades after the Chicago Fire, and if you look closely, you can see nails, washers and other hardware items burned into the gigantic mass of molten metal,” Nesbitt said. “We wanted people to be able to get close, touch it and interact with it, and we’re already seeing people clustered around there taking photos.”
At the “Chicago is Community” stop, there are 12 kinetic sculptures designed by local artist Bernard Williams with help from the city’s Chicago Park District Cultural Centers, Nesbitt said.
Each sculpture, which resembles a weather vane, depicts activities unique to Chicago’s community areas, Nesbitt said. One features people playing chess, while others feature musicians performing or a young dancer.
Other stops include the Couch Tomb, a small building and one of the last reminders the area once housed the Chicago City Cemetery. There is also a native species garden populated with Chicago plants and boulders etched with silhouettes of the area’s flora, and a touchable map that explores Chicago’s Indigenous history created by Potawatomi language expert Kyle Malott, Nesbitt said.
The trail’s final stop — a raised pedestal on the plaza that overlooks the trail — encourages people to reflect with poet Margaret Burroughs’ poem, “What will your legacy be?”
“We’re really trying to connect history over many hundreds and even thousands of years in this particular location of Chicago today,” Nesbitt said.
The project includes a renovation of the museum’s underground storage facility, which sits directly below the plaza and houses the museum’s 23,000 feet of archives and manuscripts, Nesbitt said.
That work — which includes water-proofing, repairing and modernizing the storage facility — is expected to be finished by spring, she said.
The Jaffee History Trail is open every day and free to visit.
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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