Chicago Harbor Lighthouse Off Navy Pier Could Be Restored, Turned Into A Museum

Architects and maritime history lovers are raising money to restore the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, which was built in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The red and white lighthouse was moved to its current location off of Navy Pier in 1919 and has fallen into disrepair. Now, nonprofit Friends of The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse wants to preserve, restore, and celebrate the lighthouse so future generations can enjoy its history, President Kurt Lentsch said at a meeting at the Chicago Maritime Museum.

Over the next two to ten years, the group members hope to turn the lighthouse into a museum and event space that people can reach by boarding a boat at Navy Pier. They expect the entire project will cost $3–$5 million, Lentsch said.

“We could really make this something special for the City of Chicago, for the Great Lakes experience, and for historical preservation. It could really work out,” Lentsch said at the Feb. 17 meeting.

Due to the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, city officials are only required to maintain the light for navigational purposes and aren’t responsible for repairing the physical structure, which has remained largely the same as when it was built.

Members of the nonprofit are in the initial stages of this project. They are mainly focused on raising money and awareness at this point, Lentsch said.

To donate to Friends of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, click here.

The group has support from city officials and is consulting with a project manager about the next steps, which include determining a pin number and address for the site as well as figuring out which ward oversees it.

These things have to happen before building permits can be granted, said Edward Torrez, an architect who’s helping lead the venture.

Chicago Lighthouse Diagram“These are technical challenges, but we’ll figure out how to get there,” Torrez said. “Our attorneys are doing a lot of work surrounding the question, ‘How can this become a real property that’s situated on the lake?’ I can just picture a Uber driver plugging in the address and being like, ‘WHAT?!’”

Ideally, visitors will eventually be able to visit the lighthouse, climb past exhibits detailing its history — complete with artifacts — and to access an observation deck at the top. Individuals and companies could rent the space for events.

“You would never be able to see the city from this angle anywhere else,” Lentsch said. “Everyone should be able to experience this view of our beautiful city. The city of Chicago is so rich in its history, in its architecture, so it’s just a shame that the lighthouse is sitting out there empty right now.”

Kurt Lensch

With permission from the city, a restoration team — including structural engineers, environmental engineers and a team of divers — spent a day examining the lighthouse site in July and found it’s “not in the best condition it could be,” Lentsch said.

The majority of the lighthouse’s structure is made of steel, so it’s somewhat stable, but numerous repairs are needed to protect it from the elements, Lentsch said. This will include roof repairs, restoration of interior plaster, new flooring, new railings and a coat of paint.

This work is especially urgent due to the changing environment of Lake Michigan and the onset of stronger storms due to climate change, Lentsch said. Most lighthouses in the Great Lakes were built more than 100 years ago, so they’re becoming more susceptible to damage, Lentsch said.

“Storms are becoming more powerful, and our lighthouses are becoming more vulnerable, if not addressed and reinforced,” Lentsch said.

The first phase of construction would likely focus on restoring the lighthouse’s shell and cleaning it up. More extensive upgrades will be required in the second phase of construction to prepare the interior for visitors, including the addition of a stronger electric source, working bathrooms, and an elevator, among other things.

One of eight lighthouses in Illinois, the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse was among the first to be powered with electricity in a time when most lighthouses used gas to keep the lights on, Lentsch said.

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 19, 1984, and it became a Chicago Landmark on April 9, 2003, according to the nonprofit’s website.

A keeper lived in the lighthouse until the ’80s and was responsible for maintaining the light, Lentsch said. The group hasn’t been able to identify this man, but Lentsch did meet someone who claimed to have dated the keeper, who described him as “a little nuts,” Lentsch said.

One of the keeper’s responsibilities was bringing a huge weight on a rope to the top of the structure and dropping it. As the weight fell through the center of the lighthouse, the rope pulled on the light, causing it to rotate. This “clockwork mechanism” was developed in the 1870s, and the equipment remains within the lighthouse today.

If the lighthouse is restored according to plan, it could include a recreation of the keeper’s living quarters with more information about the equipment he used to complete his responsibilities as well as his day-to-day life, Lentsch said.

Other exhibits could include artifacts depicting the lighthouse’s construction and its broader impact on the city’s maritime history.

For updates about the project’s progress, visit the Friends of the Chicago Harbor Lightouse’s website.

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