The Art of Exploration · a diary of day trips, natural places, and miscellaneous adventures

Northerly Island

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012 in Illinois
Northerly Island

When my brother invited me to join him and his family for a trip to Northerly Island this weekend for some sledding and snowshoeing, I told him I’d be delighted to do so. But what I didn’t admit at the time, was that I had no clue where I had just agreed to go.

For all I knew, I could have been on my way to the Svalbard Archipelago. But after a bit of snooping around the internet, I soon learned that Northerly Island is rather more close to home. Turns out it’s the man-made peninsula that parallels the Chicago waterfront astride the Museum Campus and Soldier Field. The Adler Planetarium sits at the northern tip of Northerly Island and since I’ve been to the Adler Planetarium many times, I’ve also been to Northerly Island many times—I just never realized it.

What I do remember about the location is that it used to be the home of Meigs Field, a single-strip airport that operated from December 1948 until March 2003, when Mayor Daley had it bulldozed in the middle of the night, much to the dismay of many Chicago residents. In its place now stands a lovely city park where you can stroll along the lakefront and enjoy a panoramic view of the southern edges of Lake Michigan (to the east) or the Chicago skyline (to the west). But there’s considerably more to the history of Northerly Island than a controversial bulldozing of an airport and the making of a park.

The construction of Northerly Island began in 1920. It took five years to complete and another five years to find its first occupant—the Adler Planetarium, constructed in 1930. Four years later, Northerly Island acquired its next occupant when it became the site of the 1933–1934 World’s Fair, A Century of Progress.

The World’s Fair was timed to coincide with Chicago’s centennial and it’s aim was to celebrate man’s strides in technical innovation. The motto of the fair was:

Science finds, industry applies, man adapts

It’s an odd motto that makes it sound like man is not really in control but is instead running at the back of the pack trying to keep up with science and industry. So yeah, that sounds about right. Even today. Especially today.

A pair of posters from the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago.

The fair included some rather predictable attractions: an automobile show, a Homes of Tomorrow exhibit and a nightclub where talents such as Judy Garland and The Cook Family Singers performed. There were also some exhibits that today would be considered inappropriate and offensive—a display of incubators containing real babies and an exhibit of small people called Midget City. Seems A Century of Progress wasn’t entirely about progress.

Archival footage of the 1933 World’s Fair by Burton Holmes.

With the exception of these most insensitive exhibits, the World’s Fair must have been a visually spectacular sight. The buildings were decorated in a multitude of colors to create what was called a Rainbow City. The color-rich nature of the 1933-1934 World’s Fair was intended to contrast the White City of the previous Chicago World’s Fair, held in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World (which was in 1492 not 1493, but oh well, the fair was only one year late and it’s the thought that counts).

Panoramic view of the Chicago World’s Fair “A Century of Progress” site, 1933–1934. Click image for larger version. Public domain photo, Library of Congress.

My research turned up one last historical twist to Northerly Island that’s worth mention. In 1946, Chicago placed a bid for the island to become the site of the United Nations Headquarters. The bid was, of course, unsuccessful. In the end, Chicago lost out to New York City and the United Nations Headquarters now resides on the banks of the East River. But that’s all right, we have a wonderful lakefront park instead.

This is not the Headquarters of the United Nations.
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