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Feds to city: Give us back Chicago Harbor Lighthouse

The city of Chicago has been unable to do anything with the deteriorating lighthouse in a decade of ownership.

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, located a mile out on Lake Michigan, doesn’t need a lighthouse keeper. Automation has rendered that job unnecessary. Ever since the federal government handed it over to the city in 2010, officials have waited for the right idea to breathe new life into the building. It never came. Now the federal government wants it back.
Mitch Dudek / Sun-Times

The federal government is clutching its pearls at how the city has taken care of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse since it transferred ownership of the aging icon more than a decade ago — and now they want it back.

In particular, they scoffed at the idea of turning the lighthouse into a luxury hotel with a helicopter pad; two Chicago developers floated that concept, but it stalled then died in the spitballing phase after both concluded it’d be too tough to turn a profit.

The city has owned the lighthouse since the Coast Guard, National Park Service and General Services Administration signed off on handing over the deed in 2009 under an agreement the city would figure out a way to restore the deteriorating building for public use and education.

Similar arrangements have been made for other lighthouses around the country since the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 provided the blueprint.

The city initially hinted at the possibility of turning the lighthouse into a museum with a cafe. The idea of a bed and breakfast was kicked around. A ready supply of curiosity seekers could be ferried over from nearby Navy Pier, the thinking went.

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse.
Chicago Harbor Lighthouse Assessment Report

City planners were open to other ideas and tried to match the lighthouse with a suitor whose repurposing plans fall within preservation requirements.

The Sun-Times learned about the luxury hotel idea through an open records request and published a story in December detailing how it was one of several ideas that surfaced in the last few years on how to breathe life back into the building.

The story was the focal point of several emails the National Park Service sent in June to the city’s Department of Planning and Development; those emails also were obtained through an open records request.

An architectural rendering of what would have been a hotel and restaurant at the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse.
Provided by David Morton

Referring to the Sun-Times story, NPS employee Alesha Cerny wrote the General Services Administration “is hounding me on this and we’ve got to get this figured out. ... The article includes an architectural rendering of a possible hotel and restaurant at the [lighthouse] that is completely inappropriate and presents a treatment that is not in compliance with the terms” of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act.

“While this may have not been a serious contender, it is very problematic that such an idea was even printed,” Cerny wrote.

The lighthouse was not being cared for as promised and efforts to preserve and repurpose the building “should have been well underway,” Cerny added.

“But instead it sits without anything being done to it and it continues to deteriorate so GSA would like it reverted back to them. Is the city still trying to seek out new partners or potential new stewarts (sic) for the light or would they like to give it up?” she wrote.

The lantern and foghorn are still on duty at the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, and any potential redevelopment of the site would have to take that into account.
Chicago Harbor Lighthouse Assessment report

Kathleen E. Dickhut, deputy commissioner with the city’s Department of Planning and Development, emailed Cerny back, writing she had checked with the planning department and Navy Pier, “and although it is an intriguing building, neither organization has been able to find a suitable user after years of exploring the issue. Please let me know the process of returning the property” to the Park Service.

Arrangement have yet to be hammered out.

“The federal government is presently scheduling a time to discuss this process with the city,” GSA spokeswoman Cat Langel said in an email.

No decisions have been finalized on the fate of the building’s ownership, according to Langel and city spokesman Peter Strazzabosco.

In explaining the city’s lack of progress, Strazzabosco cited “challenges involving the site’s location, seasonal usage limitations, lack of docking facilities, unknown market demand and other issues.”

If the federal government retakes possession, the lighthouse could be offered for free to non-profit organizations. If no one bites, then it could be auctioned with preservation requirements outlined in the deed, Langel said.

The most the feds have ever gotten at a lighthouse auction was $933,888, when the Graves Light Station on the outskirts of the Boston Harbor sold to a local man in 2013 who undertook restoration.

Don Terras, an authority on lighthouses who maintains Evanston’s Grosse Pointe Lighthouse, said auctioning the lighthouse would be an option of last resort.

“It’s a last ditch effort, but this might be a last ditch effort situation,” he said.

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse has seen better days, as these historic photos show.
Chicago Harbor Lighthouse Assessment Report

The lighthouse was built in 1893 and reconstructed at its current location — about a mile offshore of downtown — in 1917.

It’s been all but abandoned for decades. It still functions. But it’s been fully automated, no longer needing a lighthouse keeper, since the 1970s.

Terras would love to see the building restored, but he also recognizes the enormous hurdles.

These stairs lead to the light at the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse. The mechanism is now automated, so there’s no longer any need for a lighthouse keeper.
These stairs lead to the light at the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse. The mechanism is now automated, so there’s no longer any need for a lighthouse keeper.
Chicago Harbor Lighthouse Assessment Report

“The city is in the middle of battling a pandemic ... ” Terras said.

“I think if the feds take it back, they’ll probably sit on it for a while, ’til things settle down after the election and then maybe a wealthy citizen with an eye toward preservation will step up and hammer out a plan,” he said.

Whatever happens, one thing is certain: Every year, the weather chips away at the lighthouse.

The light and foghorn at the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse have been automated for decades.
Chicago Harbor Lighthouse Assessment Report

“With the freeze-thaw process, there will eventually be no other alternative than to take the thing down, and that would be a huge loss,” he said.

It has no dock, heat, plumbing or running water, and electricity is limited.

But the bones seemed to be in decent shape, according to a city-commissioned assessment completed in 2015.

A deteriorating room inside the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse.
Chicago Harbor Lighthouse Assessment report

Estimates on the cost to make the building safe for visitors were included in the report but redacted in a copy released by city officials.

“I’ve been all around the country, and I can’t think of any lighthouse that has such a magnificent urban vista,” Terras said.