Northerly Island is a 91-acre (370,000 m2) man-made peninsula along Chicago's lakefront. The site of the Adler Planetarium, Northerly Island connects to the mainland through a narrow isthmus along Solidarity Drive dominated by Neoclassical sculptures of Kościuszko, Havliček and Copernicus. With the demolition of Meigs Field Airport, it is now a part of the Museum Campus and has been converted into parkland. A semi-temporary concert venue, the Huntington Bank Pavilion occupies part of the site of the former airport.
The idea for Northerly Island began with Daniel Burnham's "Plan of Chicago" which called for the creation of Northerly Island as a lakefront park at the northern end of a five-island chain between Jackson Park and 12th Street, the only lakefront structure to be built based on Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago (a plan created just over 5 years after the Wright Brothers' historic first flight). Northerly Island forms the southern end of Chicago Harbor (now Monroe Harbor), and the eastern boundary of Burnham Harbor. As indicated by the color green on the original plan, the island was to be populated by trees and grass for the public enjoyment. Daniel Burnham died in 1912. By 1916, Edward H. Bennett, co-author of the Plan of Chicago, wrote that a lakefront location would be most suitable for an airport serving the central business district. By 1922, Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson recommended locating the downtown airport at Northerly Island.
Work on the island began in 1920 when Chicago voters approved a $20 million bond issue to create Northerly Island, with construction completed by 1925. Due to the Great Depression and WW II, the proposed airport, later named Meigs Field, did not open until 1946.
A short time later in 1930 Adler Planetarium was built, and in 1933–34 the island was at the center of festivities at the "Century of Progress" World's Fair. Taking part in the Century of Progress Exposition, 24 Italian Savoia-Marchetti S55X flying boats, under the command of General Italo Balbo, make the first transatlantic formation flight between Italy and Chicago. Ironically, only flying boats could be used because Chicago did not yet have a suitable nearby airport, except for Grant Park, which was occasionally used as a landing strip. Local publishing mogul Merrill C. Meigs supported earlier recommendations for converting Northerly Island into an airport, but construction did not begin for numerous reasons, such as lack of funds during the Great Depression and WW II. Construction did not begin until after a competing proposal to host the United Nations Headquarters on the island was lost in 1946. The Works Progress Administration connected the island to the mainland via a causeway at 12th Street in 1938. During this period Northerly Island was full of paths and walkways as well as a beach at 12th Street.
Although Mayor Richard J. Daley unofficially proposed converting Meigs Field into a lakefront park, the airport's lease was not set to expire until 1996. His son, Mayor Richard M. Daley, who had pledged to keep the airport open until 2006, reneged and controversially tore up the runways at Meigs Field in the middle of the night, in 2003, purportedly in the name of homeland security. Plans followed to convert the area into green space and expand upon the neighboring Museum Campus.
In 2005, an outdoor concert venue opened on the northern part of Northerly Island. Originally named Charter One Pavilion, it was expanded in 2013 and renamed to FirstMerit Bank Pavilion, and as of January 2017 it is named Huntington Bank Pavilion.
In December 2010, the Chicago Parks District unveiled its framework plan for Northerly Island, to be completed over the next 20–30 years. The park will provide a variety of uses year-round with ecology and education central themes. A reef will be built, and the park will be designated into zones of "passive" and "active" relating to the amount of human activity.
In 2015, a 40-acre park opened on the southern part of the island. The park features a concrete trail for walking and bicycle riding, a lagoon, and landscaped wildlife habitats.
Northerly Island's nature preserve is meant to revitalize the environment that was originally there. The new park is now home to migratory birds and natural wildlife. To protect its new inhabitants, dogs are not allowed on the park.
The mile of paved paths has no lighting to create as natural of an environment as possible. The park is opened until 11:00 PM, and it is advised by park security to bring a flashlight.
The park is home to many of Illinois' natural wildlife, including monarch butterflies and herons. The park's 5-acre lagoon welcomes many kinds of animals. To make the park as inviting to these animals as possible, over 11,000 shrubs and 400 trees were planted.
On September 26, 2015, the closing ceremonies of the second annual Great Chicago Fire Festival was held on Northerly Island after being moved from its original location on the Chicago Riverfront in 2014. This event is put on by Redmoon Theater in conjunction with the City of Chicago and Chicago Park District and is meant to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The closing ceremony includes a dramatic burning of the "GRIT House," food concessions, performance stages, and a dramatic fireworks finale, among other things.
The Chicago Park District hosts many events on Northerly Island to allow individuals and families to take advantage of all the natural area the park has to offer.
During the winter months, the Chicago Park District hosts Polar Adventure Days, allowing parents to bring their children and experience nature in ways that would normally not be possible for those living in a city environment. On these Polar Adventure Days, the Park District offers free snowshoe rental (when there are 3 or more inches of snow) and cross country skiing, as well as a host of indoor activities in the Northerly Island Visitors Center.
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