The most beautiful urban highway in America

Vol. XXII No. 1 - SPRING 2011

Authors Neil Samaros and Bernard Judge used this statement as the thesis of their book “Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive” as they introduced themselves to the audience at the Edgewater Library on Saturday, March 19th. The EHS members and friends were in total agreement. The Chicago lakefront park and the road that goes through it offer a beautiful ride the length of the City – almost.

Those gathered to learn about this new book did not need to be sold on the planning achievement of the road but instead came for the conversation and the photos. Because of a glitch with the projector the authors handed copies of the book out to the audience and then told their story by directing the group to various pages and a wonderful time was had by all. It was a unique presentation with the information and the photos evoking thoughts and conversations about various aspects of the transformation of the Chicago shoreline from industrial and institutional use to public open space. While many contributed to the plan as it developed over more than 150 years the most credit still goes to Aaron Montgomery Ward for his lawsuit that protected Grant Park from buildings like the Field Museum and others that would have crowded out the much needed green space of the City’s front yard.

Ward based his lawsuit on the actions of the first commissioners for the Illinois Michigan Canal who set aside the land as “forever open clear and free.” Their names are familiar to most Chicagoans – Hubbard, Thornton and Archer because of the streets named for them (Thornton noted for suburban activities). But little has been named for Ward because he took on the fight for the people in opposition to the moneyed business class.

Among the facts the audience learned was that the roadway was not called Lake Shore Drive until 1942. Before that is was called various things in various sections among them the Outer Drive and Lief Erickson Drive. In the book can be found numerous photos from the Chicago History Museum archives including early black and white photos of Grant Park with the box cars along the water, the construction of the “S”-curve which was dedicated by FDR in 1937 and a photo of the cars exiting the Drive in bumper to bumper traffic at Foster before the Lake Shore Drive extension up to Hollywood in the 1950s.

The authors and the audience discussed recent planning for Lake Shore drive including planned alterations to the curve by the Drake Hotel and the proposal to finish the Next Four Miles offered by Friends of the Parks. Questions were raised about how exceptions to the open space rule were achieved for La Rabida Hospital, McCormick Place, the Art Institute of Chicago and Millennium Park. There are many stories to be told but the main thesis, that this is a beautiful urban highway, was not in dispute.