Larry Bienz has been going to Promontory Point regularly since he moved to the Hyde Park neighborhood nearly a decade ago.
Like many residents, Bienz goes to the point to escape the chaos of the city, enjoying its seclusion in the winter and its access to Lake Michigan in the summer. Bordering DuSable Lake Shore Drive, its three other sides face only the waves.
“It’s my favorite place on the lakeshore,” Bienz, 37, said. “It’s a way to get away from the buildings. You feel like you’re actually out on the water and not just hanging out on a slab of concrete somewhere.”
Concrete has been at the heart of a decadeslong debate between residents and city and federal officials.
[ It’s the stoners vs. the concretists at Promontory Point ]
In the early 2000s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers replaced much of Chicago’s shoreline barriers with concrete revetments to repair erosion caused by Lake Michigan. Because of an outcry by residents, Promontory Point is the only spot where the original limestone steps have been left in place.
Residents have been fighting to save the steps ever since.
“I consider Promontory Point to be one of Chicago’s finest treasures,” said Southeast Side Ald. Sue Sadlowski Garza at a recent meeting of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. “(Alfred) Caldwell’s work should be preserved and his intention was not a concrete platform, I can tell you.”
Now, the long-standing dispute may finally be coming to an end.
Last month, the landmarks commission took the first step toward preserving the point’s original design. Two weeks ago, the Army Corps of Engineers announced separate funding for Promontory Point that will allow the city, with public input, to develop a plan “to meet the goals of both reducing coastal storm damage while preserving the historic nature of the existing structure.”
But residents remain distrustful.
“We’ve been at this with the Park District for 23 years so we tend to be a little skeptical about what they say,” said Jack Spicer, director of the Promontory Point Conservancy community group. “When they say they’re going to utilize the limestone, that doesn’t mean that they’re committed to using the structure as it is. It could mean any number of things.”
Promontory Point has been a favorite retreat on the Chicago lakefront for decades, attracting support from former President Barack Obama, the celebrity wedding of filmmaker George Lucas and countless local visitors.
Created in the early 1900s as a focal point for Chicago’s Burnham Park, the landscape of Promontory Point was designed by renowned architect Caldwell in 1937.
But mixed messages from the city and oversight by multiple jurisdictions have compounded the confusion for residents. In public meetings in the early 2000s, the Park District told residents that concrete steps could weather the pounding from waves better than limestone and improve accessibility for the disabled and cyclists.
Now city officials say they back the limestone plan.
“The Park District, along with the city and USACE, is committed to rehabilitating the existing limestone at Promontory Point,” said Michele Lemons, communications director for the Chicago Park District.
Lemons did not respond to questions about when the Park District dropped its support for the concrete revetments and why it now favors preserving the limestone steps.
However, a provision requiring the Army Corps to use the locally preferred plan for restoring Promontory Point was included in the 2023 defense bill signed into law by President Joe Biden in December.
In last month’s landmarks commission meeting, Ald. Leslie Hairston, whose ward includes Promontory Point, admonished Park District officials for pushing to use concrete for years while residents fought to preserve the limestone.
“It has not been this holding hands, skipping down the road together with the Park District and the community and we need to, we need to own that. Because if it were that simple, this could have been done a long time (ago),” Hairston said.
[ How bitter cold winter blasts and a warming planet will chew up the Lake Michigan shoreline, faster and faster ]
In recent years, lake levels were only inches from their all-time high in 1986, and severe storms struck the shoreline further eroding parts of Promontory Point. The storms also washed away North Side beaches and damaged concrete revetments on the North and South sides.
“The increase in extreme events is probably the biggest player,” said Max Berkelhammer, an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who specializes in atmospheric and climate sciences.
“Rainfall amounts are more intense. During these events, the wave action, the wind action, the rain action are going to react more increasingly to enhance erosion,” Berkelhammer said. “Obviously the biggest thing we can do is reduce CO2 emissions, slow down the rate that the atmosphere is warming and reduce all of these effects collectively. That’s what needs to be the long-term goal.”
In the 1980s, high lake levels tore up the shoreline and Congress authorized the Chicago Shoreline Protection Project. The federal and local partnership began work across more than 9 miles of the lakefront to protect DuSable Lake Shore Drive from flooding and the shoreline from erosion. The Army Corps finished the federal share of the project in 2014, constructing the concrete barriers that line most of the shoreline today.
[ The battle for Lake Michigan: As beaches erode, millions of dollars have been poured into temporary solutions. Can anyone find a long-term fix? ]
In a statement last week, the Army Corps said it will study areas of the shoreline left out of its 1994 plan as well as “underperforming segments of the rehabilitated shoreline,” where the concrete steps have been damaged by more recent erosion. Paid for by the Army Corps, city of Chicago and Park District, the study is estimated to cost $3 million and expected to be completed in 2025.
According to Mike Padilla, the Army Corps project manager for the shoreline protection plan, restoration efforts have been aimed at maximizing benefits to the shoreline while minimizing costs. He said concrete and limestone are both good options.
“Concrete performs very well and when it cures next to the lake like that it tends to have even more strength,” Padilla said. “The only problem with that is concrete is very strong in compression, but it has issues in tension. It can crack over time and then it becomes not so much a maintenance nightmare so much as a visual eyesore.”
“A lot of it has to do with access and promenades and it just looks good,” said Padilla, adding that the city’s projects stand up pretty well.
“Limestone, kind of the same thing, very, very durable,” Padilla said. “Some of the limestone that was used for Promontory Point obviously has lasted this whole time and continues to last for a really long time so I think it becomes a cost issue.”
Hyde Park residents are united in their belief that limestone is a better choice.
Brigid Maniates, a member of the Promontory Point Conservancy, points to a concrete promenade that was built on the tip of Promontory Point that she says is undermining the limestone and causing it to sink behind the promenade.
“If anything had been repaired the way it was supposed to be originally, it probably wouldn’t be like this at all,” she said.
Armed with engineering reports, testimonials and the support of the local community, Spicer has led the conservancy for more than 20 years. He and his wife, Debra Hammond, have helped the organization create a rehabilitation plan for the limestone. This plan, Spicer said, is much more cost-effective and practical than replacing the lakefront with concrete.
The original limestone came from a quarry in Bedford, Indiana. Spicer said enough leftover limestone remains in Bedford to line the entire lakefront over again.
According to last week’s Army Corps statement, the city of Chicago has a $5 million capital bond specifically for planning and designing Promontory Point. In December, the Army Corps received $450,000 in federal funds to perform a third-party review of the city’s preferred design for the point.
With the newly allocated funding, Padilla said the Army Corps now hopes to engineer the Promontory Point section with the limestone in mind and see whether alternatives to rubble and concrete can be found.
But Spicer and Hammond are not convinced city officials will stand behind their latest assertions to protect the limestone. They worry about the possibility of only pieces of the limestone being preserved.
Under one scenario, “They’re not repairing, restoring the limestone revetment, they’re repurposing the limestone through rehabilitation,” Hammond said. “Which allows them to demolish the limestone revetment and replace it with concrete and then do something decorative and ornamental with the blocks.”
“We’re not saying that we have even the slightest suspicion that that’s what they’re thinking, but it could happen,” Spicer agreed.
For Bienz, the point’s design enhances its natural beauty.
“I think that the limestone has a lot of character,” Bienz said. “It’s hard to know who to believe. Clearly the limestone feels a lot more nice and unique.”
[ Day after day at sunrise, 3 Chicago women are ‘swimming through’ the winter in icy Lake Michigan ]
Promontory Point is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Last month, the Chicago Landmarks Commission voted unanimously to approve a preliminary landmark designation for Promontory Point. Commissioners said they received more than 600 letters of support from residents, officials and preservationists. No one opposed the landmark designation.
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Though being approved for preliminary landmark status marks an important step, it merely begins the long process of official approval. It still must undergo City Council and public hearings and be voted on by the full City Council.
During last month’s landmarks meeting, Commissioner Suellen Burns asked whether the recommendation would include language explicitly requiring that the limestone steps be preserved. “I think it would be really meaningful to the public to see in the landmark recommendation that the recommendation includes and respects the locally preferred plan,” she said.
That question remains unanswered.
National guidelines state historic properties must be used as they were historically or through a new use which “maximizes the retention of distinctive materials.” Chicago guidelines require the Landmarks Commission to review proposed projects to make sure they will not adversely affect the significant historical or architectural features of a Chicago landmark.
As they have for years, residents plan to continue to keep a close eye on the point.
“Even where it’s in decay, it’s just beautiful,” Spicer said. “Landmarking gives it more protection, but it doesn’t give it absolute protection.”
Ezra Maille is a freelancer.