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Decaying Jackson Park comfort station deserves better — as does the whole park

The open-air pavilion was a wreck long before a driver lost control of her Jeep last Monday and ran into it. The Chicago Park District has neglected the building for years.

An old Jackson Park Golf Pavilion stands near E Marquette Dr in South Shore after a car accident sent a vehicle into the building, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
A classic Jackson Park pavilion stands near East Marquette Drive. Last Monday, an SUV smashed into the structure, which has long been neglected.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A historic, century-old comfort station on the southeastern end of Jackson Park was struck by an SUV and damaged last week.

But the single-story open-air pavilion was a wreck long before a driver lost control of her Jeep last Monday and ran into it. The Chicago Park District has neglected the building for years, allowing a design by one of early Chicago’s most important architecture firms, D.H. Burnham & Co., to rot in plain sight.

To make matters worse, the battered building sits roadside on Marquette Drive just north of 67th Street, spoiling one of the city’s great vistas, where the lake and parkland give way to a run of classy early and mid-20th century residential towers along South Shore Drive.

The building’s condition is an embarrassment. And it is a reminder of how poorly the city and the park district still too often treat Jackson Park, a 551-acre lakeside treasure listed on the National Register Historic Places.

The Chicago Park District must fix the damaged pavilion. And it must do right by Jackson Park overall.

A ‘beautiful frame’ for Lake Michigan

The comfort station was built in 1912 near the 9th hole of the park’s 18-hole golf course. With its Prairie School-like details and concrete aggregate exterior, the building belongs to the same architectural family as the better-known 63rd Street Beach House located a half-mile to the north.

And like the beach house, the comfort station was designed to take advantage of its lakeside location.

“Its center-open loggia, with men’s bathrooms on one side and women’s on the other, allowed beautifully framed views of Lake Michigan,” historian Julia Sniderman Bacharach wrote in a 1995 report to the Chicago Park District.

But that beautiful frame is falling apart. The building’s Spanish tile roof has collapsed. Its concrete aggregate exterior is cracked and decaying. Weeds mingle with the construction fence that surrounds the structure.

It didn’t have to be this way. The park district’s exhaustive South Lakefront Framework Plan in 2018 called for the restoration and reuse of the comfort station — even rebranding it as the Burnham Building — among other big-ticket improvements for Jackson Park.

Some of the plan’s recommendations are being implemented, such as the current construction of a 24-foot-wide and 204-foot-long breakwater at the park’s outer harbor, which is intended to reduce damage caused by the lake’s waves.

Other recommendations included the Obama Presidential Center, of course, which is scheduled to get under construction in late summer.

But many of Jackson Park’s landscapes and structures, all intended to enhance the experiences of visitors, are in need of critical attention and repairs.

Among them is the picturesque former U.S. Coast Guard station at 64th Street and Lake Shore Drive. And a pedestrian span near the Museum of Science and Industry, the 126-year-old Columbia Bridge, has been closed off for years because it is in such bad shape. Popularly known as the Clarence Darrow Memorial Bridge, it was designed by Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root.

And three years after the release of the South Lakefront Framework Plan, the comfort station near 67th and Marquette Drive remains in distress.

On Monday, a 31-year-old driver headed south on curved Marquette Drive flipped her Jeep on its side and crashed into the comfort station, according to a police report. The driver and four passengers were injured, but not fatally, thank goodness.

But the accident has done little to push the park district into action to repair the structure. A tire and other debris from the wreck were still there when a Sun-Times photographer took the images that accompany this editorial.

Parks officials are “currently assessing the damage to the Jackson Park golf pavilion, caused by the recent accident,” a spokesperson said. “No costs or timeline for repairs is available at this time.”

Remarkable place needs care

We understand restoring a large, complicated city park such as Jackson is an expensive undertaking that can’t be done — or funded — overnight.

But Jackson Park is more than a big park. It’s a remarkable place in terms of design, location and history. The park played host to the famed 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that introduced Chicago to the world.

We urge the park district to step up here and remain mindful that the specifics of Jackson Park’s bridges, details and, yes, comfort stations — designed and sited with care and beauty — are just as important as the whole.

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