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Would a Landmark Designation Protect the Point’s Limestone?

The non-profit organization Preservation Chicago reignited the debate surrounding the restoration of Promontory Point’s limestone at a September meeting of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks Program Committee. Currently, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the Chicago Park District plan to demolish and replace the Point’s limestone revetments with a concrete-and-steel barrier. But a nomination for landmark designation by Preservation Chicago, which, as outlined by the City, would necessitate a preservationist approach to its restoration, may hold promise for preventing the limestone’s demolition.

Promontory Point is a forty-acre artificial peninsula running from 54th to 56th Streets on Chicago’s lakefront. Its landscape design was developed by renowned architect Alfred Caldwell, and the limestone revetments were built in between 1937 and 1938 as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project meant to serve as a buffer against flooding from DuSable Lake Shore Drive. Now, the Point serves as a recreational place for residents.

Chicago’s lakeshore limestone barriers were built nearly one hundred years ago. CDOT and the Park District determined in 1993 that the limestone revetments had degraded to the point where they no longer sufficiently protected the shore against flooding and erosion. A $300 million plan to repair or replace revetments from Montrose Ave. to 79th Street was created by the Chicago Park District, the City of Chicago, and the Army Corps of Engineers. Emergency protection measures at the Morgan Shoal nearby were completed in 2020. The City announced work underway for the final restoration project at Morgan in April 2021, with the Point being the next and final project.

In 2000, the Park District and CDOT presented a plan to demolish the limestone and replace it with concrete, a move the Promontory Point Conservancy stated on their website “severely restricted access to the water.” Support from the community and from then-Senator Barack Obama in 2006 pushed the City to further consider a preservationist approach. Finally, in 2018, the Promontory Point Conservancy applied for Promontory Point to be listed as part of the National Register of Historic Places, and this status was awarded, which according to the conservancy group is a positive step towards protecting the limestone.

CDOT’s June 2021 “Strategic Plan for Transportation,” indicates an intention to “[reconstruct] over nine miles of Chicago’s lakefront with concrete and steel structures, stone retaining walls, and beaches.” Regarding CDOT’s current plan, Michael Claffey, Director of Public Affairs at CDOT, told the Weekly that CDOT is “committed to a preservation-based approach, with the intent to save and reuse as much of the existing limestone as feasible as part of an engineered solution that will protect the Promontory Point for decades to come.”

Mary Lu Seidel, the director of community engagement at Preservation Chicago, told the Weekly that though there is currently a memorandum of agreement from CDOT and the Park District outlining potential plans to preserve or partially preserve the limestone revetments, “the current thinking coming from the City would be to remove the limestone and fill in with concrete.” Though these older plans exist, preservation activists like Seidel are suspicious that these memorandums will be ignored in favor of new plans to replace the limestone with concrete. Organizations like Preservation Chicago and the Promontory Point Conservancy are of the belief that this demolition is neither necessary nor favorable for residents, and as such there remains pushback from these groups.

A study prepared for the Hyde Park Historical Society and the Community Task Force for Promontory Point in 2002 found that repairing the limestone would be more cost-effective than replacing it with concrete. Additionally, recent water levels in Lake Michigan have actually been found to be declining due to lower precipitation levels over the past year. From July 2020 to July 2021, water levels declined by about seventeen inches.

In an interview for The Weekly, Spicer said that, because of Caldwell’s expertise, the Point’s limestone has fared well for eighty years and is expected to continue to do so, so there is no real compelling reason to get rid of the limestone completely. Spicer also said that the plan may be, in part, an effort to discourage residents from swimming at the Point as a precautionary measure. However, Spicer pointed to its importance as a community gathering place, and claimed concrete revetments would likely pose even more danger for swimmers than the limestone ones do. 

Preservation Chicago deals with the landmarking of historic sites, and Promontory Point is one of their priorities in terms of taking action for its preservation. In an interview for The Weekly, Ward Miller, its executive director, described his own experiences, and those of his parents and other members of the community, with the Point as a place for social gathering. Miller said, “Your soul is a little wrapped in these communities.” 

Recently, this effort has been concentrated in the suggestion of a landmark designation for the Point. A formal landmark designation from the City mandates a preservationist approach, protecting against any plans for demolition or renovation of the revetments on the part of CDOT that may be considered “urban deterioration.”

The suggestion for a landmark designation was submitted by Preservation Chicago at the September meeting. The Chicago Landmarks Committee received over one hundred emails and letters from residents and community groups in support of granting the Point a landmark designation.Miller pointed to the inherent beauty of the Point and its importance to the South Side. He also points to a similar landmarking process in notable pieces of architecture like Caldwell’s Lincoln Park Lily Pool. “If we landmarked a Caldwell landscape on the North Side, I think we should landmark a Caldwell landscape on the South Side.”

Seidel noted the importance of community involvement in the Point’s preservation. ”The people need to lead the process of revitalizing their neighborhoods as well as the lakefront sites that are important to them,” Seidel said. “The planners, engineers and leaders need to bring their extensive skills and facilitate a community-driven process that gets the results the City needs and retains the history and culture of Chicago’s lakefront.”  

Lifelong Chicagoan and recent University of Chicago graduate Ileana López-Martínez commented on the Point’s importance as a beach, a place to spend time with friends and family, and even a place to enjoy on one’s own. Particularly during the pandemic, López-Martínez appreciates the Point as a place to “walk along the paths with [her] friends to get out of the house safely,” and that for these reasons, “the value of the Point is indescribable.” 

Illinois Rep. Congresswoman Robin L. Kelly (D) wrote a letter of support for a preservation approach of the Point, to Colonel Paul Culberson, Commander and District Engineer of the US Army Corps of Engineers. “As [the Point] stands now, in the National Register, it is given a certain amount of bureaucratic protection,” Spicer said. “To call it a landmark would make it much more difficult to destroy.” 

He explained that, if deemed a landmark, the revetments on the Point could only be demolished if it is “a matter of public threat,” which he does not believe it to be. The Landmarks Ordinance stipulates that if permits to renovate or demolish any part of a designated landmark “adversely affect or destroy any significant historical or architectural feature of the improvement or of the district or is inappropriate or inconsistent with the designation… the Commission shall issue a preliminary decision disapproving the application for permit,” as long as the changes are not a matter of public safety. As such, a landmark designation would most likely require a preservationist approach to the limestone’s restoration.

Preservation Chicago hopes that federal infrastructure funding will be directed towards important restoration projects such as these, making the Point’s restoration a greater priority. He said he hopes that, with greater funds for infrastructure and restoration, along with a landmark designation, the limestone revetments can simply be reset on a new foundation, so that community residents can enjoy them for generations to come.

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Molly Morrow is a second-year student at the University of Chicago. She also writes for the university’s political newspaper, The Gate, and also serves as their Chicago section editor. This is her first story for the Weekly.

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