History of Promontory Point
Promontory Point is a 40-acre landscape located at the south end of Chicago’s 600-acre Burnham Park, a lakefront park made of landfill. Although Burnham Park was first envisioned in the 1890s, it evolved slowly and in stages. Landfill operations to create the southern part of Burnham Park commenced in 1922. After the 1934 consolidation of the Chicago Park District, Works Progress Administration (WPA) funding spurred Promontory Point’s completion between 1936 and 1939. Landscape architect Alfred Caldwell designed the site’s Prairie style landscape. Architect Emanuel V. Buchsbaum produced its French eclectic style towered pavilion that is sometimes likened to a lighthouse. In 1989, Caldwell worked with the Chicago Park District to oversee the revitalization of Promontory Point’s landscape. Shortly thereafter, the Park District rehabilitated the historic pavilion.
During the 1990s, the Chicago Park District, City of Chicago (CDOT), and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked together to develop a $300 million plan to repair and replace the aging revetments along the city’s entire lakefront. This plan called for repair and/or replacement of the revetments as originally built with limestone blocks. However, when construction began on the lakefront in Lincoln Park, the limestone revetments were replaced by tiers of concrete instead. In 2000, the Park District and the City’s Department of the Environment presented preliminary plans for proposed changes to Promontory Point’s revetments. The officials “told residents there was no way to save the limestone—the rocks were crumbling under pressure from the water.” Many of the Hyde Parkers at the meeting strongly believed that the step-stone revetments were a critical element of Promontory Point’s historic landscape. They were aware that the limestone revetments had been repaired in the past, and they believed they could be saved. The following year, the community formed a task force, raised funds, and hired coastal engineer Cyril Galvin, to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether preserving the step-stone revetments could be a viable option. Galvin’s report determined that revetment repairs could be undertaken in a manner that preserves the step-stone edge. At this time, the government agencies intended to move forward with the concrete option, however, the State Historic Preservation Office did not issue a letter of no adverse effect for the concrete plan.
By 2006, many groups rallied together to call for an alternative construction option that would save the step-stone revetments. The Promontory Point Task Force received support from several organizations including Hyde Park Historical Society, Landmarks Illinois, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well officials such as U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., and then U.S. Senator Barack Obama. As a result of several meetings held in 2006 and the strong public support for a preservation approach, the government agencies agreed that alternative plans would be prepared. However, as of 2020, no Federal or State funding was earmarked.
In 2020, it appears the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago are preparing their own plans and funding for a concrete and steel revetment at the Point. The Conservancy is now organizing the community as Save the Point Again! to resume design work to restore the limestone revetment and working with elected officials to get Federal and State dollars for full restoration.
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Despite its deteriorating revetments and somewhat sparser plantings, Burnham Park’s Promontory Point remains one of the most significant historic landscapes on the lakefront and most beloved spots on the city’s South Side. Caldwell said that Promontory Point was “a place you go to and you are thrilled— a beautiful experience, a joy, a delight.” Without question, Promontory Point remains such a place today.
The National Register of Historic Places
In 2017 the Promontory Point Conservancy (formerly ‘Save The Point’) applied for U.S. National Register of Historic Places listing for Promontory Point. More than 80,000 significant historic sites across the nation are honored on the Register. We felt the Point was worthy of this honor. The Conservancy raised the considerable cost needed for the preparation of the National Register application. In September of 2017, the application was reviewed by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. They passed the nomination to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in Springfield in October where it was unanimously approved and passed to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service. And one year ago on January 19, 2018 Promontory Point Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Generations of South Siders have enjoyed the Point since it was built in the 1930s. The Register listing highlights the Point’s limestone revetment that meets Lake Michigan, its Alfred Caldwell designed landscape, and its long history as an open and safe place for all to meet, mingle, swim, sit, stroll and play. This listing on the National Register honors the Point’s history, beauty and diversity. It also helps preserve the Point for future generations. Although protection of the Point is not guaranteed, any proposed construction projects at the Point that involve federal money or federal permits will need to show that they do not have an adverse effect on the historic character of the Point before they can be started.
The "Early History" and "Recent History" text is by Julia Bachrach for the nomination of Promontory Point to the National Register of Historic Places. Julia is a historian of Chicago and the Chicago Park District.