Interest surfaces on ways to breathe life into the deteriorating Chicago Harbor Lighthouse

After being an afterthought for years, the lighthouse on Lake Michigan has drawn interest from parties including Navy Pier Inc., a restaurant operator and artist Theaster Gates.

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Restoration of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse will be the topic Friday night at the Chicago Maritime Museum.

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.

Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

It might just be Chicago’s coolest building — even if it’s located a mile east of the city, out on Lake Michigan.

Largely the stuff of touristy postcards or sideways glances while cruising the lakefront, the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse has been all but abandoned for decades. It still functions. But it’s been fully automated, no longer needing a lighthouse keeper, since the 1970s.

As a result, the structure has been stripped to the studs — a shell with spiral stairs. 

Federal authorities handed over ownership of the structure to the city in 2009. Ever since, it’s been just sitting and waiting for the right suitor to sweep it right off its concrete pier.

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

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

Chicago Harbor Lighthouse Assessment Report

It’s known love in the past. Over the years, it’s had dozens of lighthouse keepers.

Then, when automation rendered them unnecessary, a hard-drinking and adventurous salesman moved in briefly after convincing the Coast Guard a tenant would help ward off vandals.

His partying ways became infamous. His lease didn’t last long.

Since then, affection has come mostly from seagulls.

After acquiring the building a decade ago, city officials expressed interest in finding a way to breathe some life back into the lighthouse, but there’s been nary a peep since.

The circular stairwell in the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse.

The circular stairwell in the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse includes a railing that wouldn’t meet current standards, according to a city report.

Chicago Harbor Lighthouse Assessment Report

But lately, city records show, real estate developers have been asking about the possibility of opening a restaurant in the lighthouse that would operate for much of the year, except for the cold-weather months.

According to the city Department of Planning and Development, there have been recent visits from structural engineers, architects and representatives of Navy Pier Inc., which operates Navy Pier about half a mile from the lighthouse and might be a natural spot to ferry a ready supply of customers to and from the lighthouse.

Deterioration is evident near one of the lighthouse’s windows.

Deterioration is evident near one of the lighthouse’s windows.

Chicago Harbor Lighthouse Assessment Report

One interested party who surfaced: internationally renowned Chicago artist Theaster Gates, who got a lighthouse tour last summer. It’s unclear what Gates might have in mind for the lighthouse. He didn’t return phone and email messages and declined to speak in person with a reporter.

A source said Gates was exploring the possibility of using the lighthouse as a space for artists or for an art installation of some sort.

Gates runs a foundation that repurposes abandoned buildings, turning them into libraries, galleries and community centers that promote art in African American communities.

Theaster Gates at the Obama Foundation Summit at the Illinois Institute of Technology in October.

Theaster Gates at the Obama Foundation Summit at the Illinois Institute of Technology in October.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

He’s known in Chicago for transforming an abandoned bank into a gallery, archive, library and cultural center. The Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave., opened to the public in 2015. Gates, an art professor at the University of Chicago, bought the deteriorating building from the city for $1 and helped finance construction by plucking slabs of marble from the bank, inscribing them “In ART we trust” and selling them for $5,000.

The space has proven to be a hit. Former President Barack Obama is among those who have visited. Gates was part of a group that helped choose the design team for the planned Obama Presidential Center.

City officials wouldn’t comment on any Gates plans for the lighthouse.

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

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

Chicago Harbor Lighthouse Assessment Report

Peter Strazzabosco, spokesman for the Department of Planning and Development, said: “The city is open to potential programming opportunities that provide public access on a seasonal basis, possibly as a destination for tour boats, special events, cultural installations or other uses that are compatible with its primary purpose as a navigational aid and its status as a city landmark.”

Restaurateur David Morton, co-owner of the DMK restaurant group, and real estate developer Scott Gidwitz dreamed of transforming the lighthouse and the adjacent breakwater into a luxury restaurant and two-story hotel — complete with a helicopter pad.

“It could be truly one of the great, world-class destinations in our backyard and further beautify the lakefront and the water,” said Morton, whose father Arnold Morton founded Morton’s Steakhouse.

The pair even enlisted an architect to design plans for the building. But Gidwitz dug further into the numbers, and they decided the project — with an estimated construction tab of $75 million — would be too costly to work.

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

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

Provided by David Morton

“The potential revenue didn’t provide a meaningful return on the capital to build it up,” Gidwitz said.

He said the location would have been the main draw for customers but would have posed a “logistical nightmare” for construction and operations.

Gidwitz, an executive with Chicago development firm The John Buck Company, said he he explored the lighthouse project as an independent venture with Morton.

There also was an obstacle was in the terms under which the federal government transferred ownership to the city. The agreement, spelled out in the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, mandated that the lighthouse be available for education, park, recreation, cultural or historic preservation purposes for the general public.

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 agreement, which is spelled out in the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, mandated the lighthouse be available for education, park, recreation, cultural or historic preservation purposes for the general public.

Gidwitz said he hadn’t fully thought out how to satisfy the requirement but wondered whether a plaque detailing the building’s maritime significance would have been sufficient.

Cutting through a tangle of  red tape for a landmark building that’s still a functioning lighthouse also presented challenges.

“I’d love to see something happen there, but I don’t know what that is or how that gets done without public funding,” Gidwitz said. “But I don’t know if that would be politically popular, spending money on a lighthouse off Navy Pier at the moment.”

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

A deteriorating room inside the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse.

A deteriorating room inside the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse.

Chicago Harbor Lighthouse Assessment report

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

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

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse.

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse.

Chicago Harbor Lighthouse Assessment Report

Built in 1893, the lighthouse was reconstructed at its current location in 1917.

Don Terras, an authority on lighthouses who maintains Evanston’s Grosse Pointe Lighthouse, has visited the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” Terras said. “You’re far enough offshore so you don’t hear much of anything, I mean anything, coming from this monstrous city that rises up before you.

“I found it awe-inspiring in a number of different ways.”

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.

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

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