Monday, July 16, 2007

TOUR: Chicago's Lakefront Path and Parks

It was one of Chicago's founders, Daniel Burnham's idea that Chicago's Lakefront should be free and clear for the enjoyment of its residents. Burnham's plan dates back to 1909 after the Great Chicago Fire and allowed Chicago to be re-built in an orderly and thoughtful fashion. One of the hallmarks of the new Plan for Chicago was the creation of the Parks and Lakefront Boulevard to act as Chicago's front yard for everyone to enjoy.

Today, the lakefront path stretches from the South Shore through Downtown and up through Edgewater. This tour highlights the lakefront from Downtown in Grant Park, northward for eight miles, through seven eclectic Chicago neighborhoods, until it ends near Chicago's border with its closest suburb - Evanston.

In the heart of Downtown along the lakefront is Grant Park. In the early 1900's, captains of industry such as Marshall Field and Montgomery Ward built skyscrapers over Michigan Avenue looking towards the lake. In the center of Grant Park is one of Chicago's most recognized landmarks - Buckingham Fountain. A gift from Kate Buckingham in memory of her brother, Clarence Buckingham, and modeled after Latona Fountain at Versailles.

To the north, and seamlessly across the street is the newly finished Millennium Park. Less formal and more interactive, Millennium Park contains sculpture, water fountains and gardens where you're invited to touch and interact with your surroundings. The centerpiece is closest to Michigan Avenue - the sculpture called "Cloud Gate" and affectionately referred to by Chicagoans as "The Bean." As you touch the sensuously polished stainless steel facade, ask yourself if you think it's worth the $25-million paid for it.

Leaving Millennium Park the path turns east to give room for the "New East Side" and its glimmering new high-rises.

Next, you'll join automobiles and pedestrians in a congested stretch to cross the Chicago River on a double-decker draw-bridge. Immediately after the bridge is Navy Pier. Chicago's most popular tourist attraction with over 6-million visitors each year, the pier serves up food-on-a-stick, offers carousel and ferris wheel rides as well as hosting glitzy galas in its renowned ballroom and on the many cruise ships docked alongside.

A little known insider's spot can be found just north of Navy Pier. Rather than following the path directly alongside Lake Shore Drive, follow the sidewalk out towards the lake past the Water Treatment Plant. The small "Olive Park" features vistas from a few hundred feet out into the lake looking back at Chicago's Gold Coast and Streeterville neighborhoods. Usually only boaters have such a magnificent view of the skyline, and photos of the city from here will be the envy of all who see them.

The landscape is minimal as you continue as the path is only a few yards wide wedged in between the water and the roadway. Notable architecture abounds, however. Keep your eye out for the soon-to-be demolished Lakeshore Athletic Club at Chicago and Lake Shore - the perfect Beaux-Arts foil for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's exquisitely skeletal 860-880 Lake Shore Drive next door.

As you round the corner that takes you a little west, note that this stretch of East Lake Shore Drive is the toniest address in Chicago with 3,000 square foot apartments selling for multi-millions. Oak Street Beach is literally an oasis where you can relax on the sand and find food and water at the lakefront cafe.

In the next stretch of lakefront path, the most notable lakefront architecture is the absence of Potter Palmer's mansion on the site of the hideously ugly (but perfectly landscaped) twin orange apartment towers at 1350 and 1360 North Lake Shore Drive. Potter Palmer was Chicago's most famous Hotel Baron and the builder of the Palmer House Hilton on Wabash.

As you travel through a small grove of trees and past a pavillion where men and boys play chess, you stumble upon North Avenue Beach and the beginning of Lincoln Park. Anchoring North Avenue Beach is the boat house. Modeled after a ship, the building contains lockers, showers, a restaurant and cafe's. Stretching northward is a mile of sandy beach filled with volleyball courts and sun-bathers.

Keep your eye out for a bridge over Lake Shore Drive if you wish to take a diversion into the park. Meandering through the park rather than along the lakefront offers less eye-candy, but more activities. First you'll come across the Lincoln Park Zoo. One of the nation's oldest zoos housing 1200 animals representing 230 species. Even better - admission is free! Next door to the zoo is the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Lincoln Park Conservatory was designed by a well known architect of the Victorian era, Joespeh L. Silsbee. With its four display houses: the Palm House, Fern Room, Orchid House and Show House - home to the annual flower shows - the Conservatory continues to provide a haven in the city. Around the corner from the Conservatory is the Notebaert Nature Museum - a natural oasis right inside the city. One highlight is a greenhouse filled with butterflies, including many not found in our region.

Travelling north from Fullerton Avenue, the path takes you past tennis courts, atletic courses and a variety of other paths leading to various corners of the park. Stay on the path for a fast ride to Belmont, or turn off at Diversey Harbor for a ride past the boats and a golf practice range. Stay in the park and you'll come across kids play areas and some wide open fields where weekend touch-football is popular. Both paths converge near Belmont Harbor where a small beach is crammed in alongside all the boats.

Near Addison is a popular meeting spot for running and biking clubs - the Totem Pole. Amenities abound as you pass north from the Totem Pole. Ten tennis courts, a large parking lot and two baseball diamonds draw nearby residents to the park in droves. A nine-hole golf course is laid out towards Montrose and paths diverge - one along the water and another along Lake Shore Drive. Both lead to Montrose Harbor.

From Montrose to Foster, the park widens to accommodate many recreational amenities. This one-mile stretch contains baseball fields, basketball courts, a dog beach, the boat harbor, a nature preserve, kid playgrounds, a skateboard park, soccer fields, tennis courts and volleyball courts. An access road meanders between Montrose, Wilson and Foster with plenty of parking. The lakefront path branches off to take you to all the different corners of the park, but eventually all meet up on the north end funnelling you towards Hollywood Beach - the last bit of public lakefront in Chicago.

View all the photos from our Lakefront Tour.