New life for historic Chicago Harbor Lighthouse? Group pitches major renovation, public tours

Friends of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse hopes to partner with schools and other organizations to bring children from underserved communities to the aging icon in the lake.

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The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse as seen from Navy Pier, Wednesday, May 24, 2023. Efforts are underway to try to restore and preserve the historic beacon, which dates to 1893.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A nonprofit organization wants to restore the aging Chicago Harbor Lighthouse and use the landmark as a teaching tool for younger generations, as well as attract more visitors to the city. 

Friends of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse shared its vision for the icon of the city’s maritime history at a meeting this week. They envision a three-stage plan: The first is to allow boat tours to get visitors close to the site. Second is to restore the lighthouse so it’s safe enough for boats to dock and for people to go inside. And the last phase is to preserve and “celebrate” the lighthouse with exhibits showcasing its history, in addition to restoring some rooms to their original condition. 

Kurt Lentsch, president of Friends of the Chicago Lighthouse, said schools and other organizations could become partners with the nonprofit to teach children about the city’s maritime history by visiting the site.

“We want to ... reach out to those communities that are underserved and bring kids down to the lakefront, board a boat, take a ride down the lake, possibly for the first time in their life, and also go into the lighthouse and learn about the impact that lighthouse has made in the development of Chicago,” Lentsch said. 

Members of the Cliff Dweller’s Club and the Friends of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse attend a presentation on the history and efforts to restore the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse at the Cliff Dweller’s Club, Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

Members of the Cliff Dwellers Club and the Friends of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse attend a presentation on the history and efforts to restore lighthouse and open it to visitors.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Preservation architect Edward Torrez said there is also enough room at the location to create event space that could accommodate up to 150 people.

“What we would like to do is preserve it, make it a public space for everyone, to learn about technology, engineering and navigation and the history of Chicago,” Torrez said. “It really should be shared.” 

There is no timeline for completing the group’s plan.

The lighthouse was built in 1893 and reconstructed at its current location — east of Navy Pier — 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.

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 with an agreement the city would figure out a way to restore the deteriorating building for public use. 

But little to no work has been done on the lighthouse since. Several ideas to breathe life back into the building have surfaced in the last few years, including turning it into a luxury hotel, a museum with a cafe and a bed and breakfast.

Kurt Lentsch Chief Dreamer & President of the Friends of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse speaks a presentation on the history and efforts to restore the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse at the Cliff Dweller’s Club, Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

Kurt Lentsch, president of the Friends of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, envisions schools and other organizations partnering with his group to teach children about the city’s maritime history.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

After seeing that no progress had been made on repurposing the lighthouse, the federal government in 2020 said it wanted to reclaim it from the city. If that were to happen, the government would be in charge of finding a new suitor for the location. If no one steps up, the site would be auctioned off to the highest bidder, including private owners. 

Lentsch said under no circumstances should the lighthouse be allowed to be placed on the auction block and taken away from the public. 

“It’s an important icon to the city of Chicago; we feel it should stay under public ownership,” Lentsch said, adding that city officials have expressed support for the group’s plan. 

The lighthouse has visible exterior damage, but its bones seem to be in decent shape, according to a city-commissioned assessment completed in 2015 by Torrez’s firm, BauerLatoza Studio.

Edward Torrez Preservation Architect with Bauer Latoza Studio speaks a presentation on the history and efforts to restore the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse at the Cliff Dweller’s Club, Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

Edward Torrez, a preservation architect with BauerLatoza Studio, says the lighthouse could be turned into an event space that could accommodate up to 150 people.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

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.

But Lentsch said his group would most likely need to raise $3 million to $5 million to restore the lighthouse. Those numbers still need to be finalized by the preservation team, which is being assembled. The next step would be to ramp up fundraising. 

“You should go in there and see what it looked like, what it felt like, and your kids should go there,” Torrez said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, trying to get everybody to see what a significant structure that is to our history.”

Contributing: Mitch Dudek

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