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As workers repair its fire-damaged visitors center, it’s time to re-think Northerly Island

Photo 2 for Lee Bey column

The boarded-up Northerly Island Visitors Center is undergoing repairs following a fire last November.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Nearly 80 years ago, Northerly Island was being positioned as the potential center of the free world.

Chicago Mayor Edward J. Kelly and the Chicago Citizens' Committee, a group of prominent Chicagoans, pitched the 119 acre man-made lakefront peninsula just south of downtown as the potential home for the planned United Nations headquarters.

"... this is the city which grips the imagination of the world ... this is the city which should be the Headquarters of the United Nations."

Of course, U.N. officials instead put their nine-building complex on 18 acres in Midtown Manhattan. John D. Rockefeller bought a chunk of the Big Apple for $18 million, then donated the land to the U.N.

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Northerly Island became the airport Merrill C. Meigs Field in 1948 and stayed that way until 2003. That's when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, well, you know.

I thought about all this after recently getting my hands on the city's old U.N. pitch book, then finding out Meigs Field's cool little modernist airport terminal has been boarded up and closed since a fire last November.

Makes you think: There were such high hopes for Northerly Island in 1945, 2003 and when it was conceived in the 1909 Plan of Chicago as the first in an island chain that would stretch south to Jackson Park.

img_4379_720.jpg

The City of Chicago’s United Nations pitch book from 1945.

Lee Bey/Sun-Times

Even in 1933, when the site hosted the futuristic A Century of Progress, Chicago's second big world's fair.

And now look at it. As a park, its is OK, but just that. In reality, Northerly Island should be an absolutely stunning urban recreational space on par with Millennium Park.

Instead, it's the architectural equivalent of Felix and Oscar, with a 30,000-seat concert venue on its north end, oddly coupled with a nature preserve on the southern side.

Chicago’s coastal park

What's on Northerly Island now is a pared-down version of what was proposed almost 15 years ago.

A 2010 framework plan developed by architect Jeanne Gang's firm, Studio Gang, and the design firm SmithGroup sought to reposition the island as "Chicago's Coastal Park."

A prairie, savannahs, wetlands and reef, smaller explorable barrier islands, an amphitheater and more were planned.

"The design takes advantage of this important location by creating inspirational outdoor experiences and strengthening Chicago's leading position as a 21st century green city," the plan promised.

Now that's Northerly Island Chicago deserves. But will we ever get it?

Mayor Brandon Johnson's administration, so willing to spend billions to help the Bears build a new stadium just across Burnham Harbor, would do well to start thinking more about Northerly Island.

Endangered building, underperforming park

The concrete and glass midcentury modern Northerly Island Visitors Center would be a key part of the isle's future.

Built in 1961 and designed by Consoer & Morgan, it's a nifty-looking time warp of a building.

"It seems like they could’ve been doing more with the facility," said freelance writer Robert Loerzel, who frequents the isle as a birdwatcher.

"It’s evocative of that midcentury look of what you’d expect [a small] airport to look like," he said. "But it's kind of in sad shape right now."

Indeed. Especially after catching fire last Nov. 26. The park district said the building accidentally caught fire but had no further specifics.

A Chicago Park District spokesperson said the structure's damaged concrete and mechanical ductwork are now being fixed.

The building will get electrical upgrades, and new windows and finishes, and will reopen in the summer, the spokesperson said.

Preservation Chicago, in listing the center among its seven most endangered buildings in 2009, called for landmarking the structure.

"We'd very much like to see this building saved and restored for the future," Preservation Chicago Executive Director Ward Miller said last week.

And that's exactly what should happen, preferably as a prelude to enacting the ambitious 2010 framework plan.

Mayor Kelly and the Chicago Citizens' Committee called Northerly Island "an unrivaled site." It is. And it's high time we start treating it that way.

Lee Bey is the Sun-Times architecture critic. He is also a member of the Editorial Board.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

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