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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Promontory Point Takes A Step Toward Landmark Status With Key Commission’s Approval

The Point is "probably the most unique location on the Great Lakes," a city commissioner said.

A person enjoys the warm spring weather at Promontory Point in Hyde Park on April 26, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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HYDE PARK — Promontory Point is one step closer to being named a Chicago landmark after a key city commission moved the effort forward.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted unanimously Thursday to grant Promontory Point a preliminary landmark designation.

The Point — which runs from 54th to 56th streets on the lakefront — features limestone revetments that protect the shoreline from erosion, “council rings” of native stone, a French Eclectic-style pavilion, the David Wallach Fountain, a section of the Lakefront Trail and a central meadow.

The Point was designed by landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, who also designed Lincoln Park’s landmarked lily pool.

The preliminary designation includes the Point’s limestone revetments, pathways, council rings, fountain and “all exterior elevations and roofline” of the pavilion.

Plants and trees are excluded, which drew concern from some city officials and meeting attendees. Commissioners, staff and local leaders will continue to discuss how to protect the Point’s planting design, including potentially amending the designation.

The commission’s vote kicks off a multi-step approval process. Reports from the city’s planning department, a public hearing, a final commission vote, a review before the City Council’s zoning committee and finally a vote from all 50 alderpeople will follow.

The landmark proposal could be introduced to City Council in March, with a final vote possible at the council’s April meeting, officials said.

April would mark the last council meeting for retiring Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who has been a vocal advocate for preserving the Point’s iconic limestone steps since the early 2000s.

“This is probably the most unique location on the Great Lakes,” planning Commissioner Maurice Cox said. “People brought stories, images that people had, the photographs — it was really quite moving. This is a moment to celebrate, that we’re taking the first step in honoring all those memories.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Visitors at Promontory Point during hot, summery weather on May 10, 2022.

For more than 20 years, advocates have demanded city and federal officials preserve Promontory Point’s limestone as they reinforce the lakefront through the Shoreline Protection Project.

The Point, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018, features the last stretch of limestone barriers in the city, as it hasn’t been renovated since the shoreline project was funded in 1996.

Landmark status would ensure “an extra step of oversight” toward preserving the Point’s limestone as city and federal agencies reinforce Chicago’s shoreline, advocates said.

Neighbors and local leaders sent hundreds of letters to commissioners in support of a landmark designation ahead of this week’s meeting.

The limestone is a special place for open-water swimming, anonymous artistic carvings and other community activity, supporters said Thursday.

“I found an incredible community of open-water swimmers at the Point, and would not have found them without the limestone,” recent University of Chicago graduate Elizabeth Winkler said. “People would come from the suburbs, from the North Side, from the West Side, and they would all gather at the Point because it’s such a special place in the form that it’s in.”

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
A rider’s horse stops for a drink of water at the David Wallach Fountain at Promontory Point during the Broken Arrow Riding Club’s High Noon ride in August 2021. The fountain was completed in 1939 to provide refreshment for “man and beast,” according to the Park District.

The Promontory Point Conservancy, a nonprofit that grew from the Save the Point campaign of the 2000s, requested in November that the commission consider a landmark designation.

Advocates for landmarking the Point cite resident-led studies that found preserving the limestone would be cheaper and more effective than replacing it with concrete, which was once the preferred design for new lakefront barriers through the project.

That concrete design, developed by local agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers, is no longer the official guide for reinforcements.

The 2023 defense bill signed into law in December by President Joe Biden requires the federal government to fund 65 percent of a “locally preferred plan” for renovations to the Point and nearby Morgan Shoal.

The law enables neighbors, city officials and Park District to negotiate a preferred design for Promontory Point without the Army Corps’ input, while ensuring the feds pick up most of the tab for reinforcements.

Local leaders — now empowered to shape the Point’s future — have said they support preserving the Point’s limestone. But “nobody really knows what anybody means” by preservation, conservancy President Jack Spicer said in November.

That confusion was on display at Thursday’s meeting as Hairston and Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) voiced their support for a landmark designation but criticized parks and transportation officials for their handling of the shoreline project.

“If this [project] is to be done in anything other than limestone, it is a no-go for the community,” Hairston said.

Park District and Department of Transportation officials said Thursday they’re “in complete agreement” with advocates on preserving the Point’s limestone.

The concrete design used for other shoreline protection projects “is no longer relevant,” transportation Deputy Commissioner Dan Burke said. “Let’s put it to rest. Let’s not talk about that again.”

“I understand the community’s fear about it, but I want to be clear: The Chicago Park District, as the property owner of Promontory Point, our intention is to follow the community’s wishes to maintain and preserve the limestone,” said Heather Gleason, Park District development director.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
People enjoy the warm spring weather at Promontory Point in Hyde Park on April 26, 2021.

A landmark designation would clear up the uncertainty, ensuring “a common language” where “everybody knows what preservation means” as they develop a design for Promontory Point reinforcements, Spicer said in November.

“The entire roster of our local officials” is in favor of landmarking the Point, as do all candidates running to replace Hairston in City Hall, Spicer said this week.

“The community has spent 22 years fighting to protect this revetment, and the community, its friends and allies will keep working until the Point is saved,” he said.

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