Pooling their efforts: thanks to a public-private partnership Chicago’s venerable Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is doing swimmingly – Great Parks: Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool

Nancy Seeger

In 1942, Alfred Caldwell called the Lily Pool “a hidden garden for the people of Megalopolis,” a place where people could leave behind the pressures of city life and re-create themselves. This special place has itself been re-created through an inspiring effort by Chicagoans who truly love Caldwell’s masterpiece.

The Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is an extraordinary landscape located in Lincoln Park, one of Chicago’s most popular and dense neighborhoods. It’s a unique sanctuary where people of all ages meander and commune with nature. Located just two miles from the bustling Loop, the Lily Pool is also a haven for migratory and nesting birds. Originally completed in 1987, it was reopened in October 2001 after a two-year, $2.4 million rehabilitation that was funded jointly by Friends of Lincoln Park and the Chicago Park District. Friends of Lincoln Park–a grassroots advocacy group–raised $1.2 million of the project cost; the balance came from the Chicago Park District, the Illinois FIRST program, and grants from the USDA Forest Service, the Chicago Community Trust and the Graham Foundation.

First landscaped in 1889, the Lily Pool was a Victorian garden and lily pond on a natural pool formed between the sand dunes of Lake Michigan’s beaches. By the 1950s, the landscaping had deteriorated, and in 1986 the Chicago Park District assigned its restoration to Alfred Caldwell, its uniquely talented landscape architect. The project gave Caldwell the opportunity to create a unique landscape that evokes the subtle natural beauty of the Midwest.

Caldwell is considered by many to be the preeminent 20th century Midwestern landscape architect. A contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright and a student of Jens Jensen, he also collaborated with such respected architects as Ludwig Hilberseimer and Mies van der Rohe. The Lily Pool is the best known and most complete surviving example of his work. His Prairie School design featured a cascading waterfall and a meandering lagoon, while stone paths led through masses of native plants to a council ring on a low rise. The council ring, a circular stone bench, was a central feature of Jensen’s designs. Located closer to the pond, an open pavilion with low-slung wooden beams invited visitors to sit and reflect.

By the 1940s, the Lily Pool had begun to deteriorate. In the late 1950s, the adjacent Lincoln Park Zoo operated it as a bird sanctuary, known as the Rookery. The site deteriorated further as the large numbers of birds in such a small area destroyed most of the plants and eroded the lagoon edges. Trampling by pedestrians added to the problem. A large-scale renovation in the 1960s sought to address the problems, and large quantities of ledge stone, as well as period site furnishings and lighting, were added. But by the 1990s, the cycle of minimal maintenance and overuse had produced an unsightly place.

Even as the site continued to deteriorate, the public’s affection for the Lily Pool continued. In 1997, Friends of Lincoln Park organized a campaign to return the Lily Pool to its former grandeur. In agreement with the Chicago Park District, the group hired Wolff Clements and Associates, Ltd. of Chicago to manage the project and serve as the landscape architectural firm. “A true partnership evolved be cause the community was the client,” says Ted Wolff, the project’s director. “The commitment to agree rather than disagree, and an abiding respect for the legacy of Alfred Caldwell, inspired the meticulous attention to detail and the tireless efforts of everyone involved.” The result left everyone as pleased with the community process as with the beauty of the rehabilitated sanctuary.

Building Consensus

By taking an active role in every step of the project, Friends of Lincoln Park ensured the all-important community input. The Lily Pool has historically been an emotionally significant sanctuary for many Chicagoans, and planners knew that community input was crucial to the project’s success. The planning process took more than two years and included several elements.

Historical Research: Julia Sniderman Bachrach, historian for the Chicago Park District, researched Caldwell’s work at the Lily Pool.

Concept Planning: During the early stages of the project, Wolff Clements and Associates developed and presented a concept plan that was reviewed by many groups, including Friends of Lincoln Park, Chicago Park District, Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago Academy of Sciences, Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and the Mayor’s Landscape Advisory Task Force. Key elements of the plan included:

* Restoring the Niagara limestone paths, ledges, waterfall and council ring.

* Reconstructing two prairie-style pavilions.

* Reopening the long-closed eastern entrance and footpath.

* Massive replanting.

* Handicap accessibility.

* Adding another half acre of land for bird habitat.

Video Production: A video documenting the problems at the site was used to inform focus groups and planners about the issues confronting the project. The video included interviews with people with disabilities as well as historians, ecologists and transportation planners.

Focus Group Discussions: Social scientists from the Metropolitan Chicago Information Center directed five focus groups. In attendance were birders, Americans with Disabilities Act advocates, historic preservationists, nearby residents and general park users. Each group convened separately, and was given a history of the site, a review of its former appearance and a review of current conditions. Then they were then asked to identify how they perceived the area and what changes should take place. There was strong consensus among the groups. The primary objectives identified included a commitment to Caldwell’s original design, access for persons with disabilities, removal of the 1960s limestone and continued maintenance.

Budget Estimate and Time Plan: Wolff Clements and Associates provided cost estimates for repairs and improvements, along with an implementation schedule.


During the one-year construction period, which began in the fall of 2000, the contractors respected the bird migration season and the integrity of the remaining original landscape. The process included several steps.

Removing the Trees: Tree removal experts identified historically significant specimens and later removed more than 400 “weed trees,” including mulberry, box elder and buckthorn. Some of the trees were reused elsewhere, such as a large but hazardous cottonwood, which became a climbing tree in Lincoln Park Zoo’s bear habitat.

Dredging the Lagoon: While dredging the lagoon, contractors were careful to watch for wildlife residents. In one instance, a family of turtles was removed from the work site and carefully carried to a neighboring pond.

Laying the Stones: In the spring of 2001, the contractor began removing non-historic stonework. About 1,600 rocks, most of them placed in the site during the 1960s, were removed and used elsewhere onsite or in other Chicago parks. Stoneworkers found that matching the unique weathered edge of the 1937 stones was a particular challenge. Some of the stones were 5′ by 12′, and had been laid without modern machinery. “The original stonework was a masterpiece of design and hard work,” says Jim Stevenson of Clauss Brothers, the general contractors.

Constructing the Limestone Path: The new path on the perimeter of the lagoon has improved access to the waterfall, council ring and pavilion. A new design has blended historic accuracy with modern sensibility. Preservationists are satisfied that the sense of natural woodland has been maintained, and disabilities advocates are content with the nearly universal accessibility.

Designing the Parking: Accommodation was the guiding factor in planning a parking layout that required handicap accessibility. The eastern entrance and footpath had been removed in the 1960s to protect the bird habitat. By reinstating the long-closed eastern entrance, handicap parking would be provided, but bird advocates were concerned that the increased foot traffic would disturb nesting. By acquiring more land on the perimeter of the area, planners solved the problem–the additional land would be a nesting area.

The Planting: With the removal of hundreds of invasive trees, sunlight has returned to the Lily Pool. Flowering and fruiting trees, shrubs, and native grasses and flowers were selected in keeping with Alfred Caldwell’s intent to produce a Midwestern wooded glade. Numerous varieties of plants of varying maturity were used to prevent an “instant landscape” look and provide a natural habitat for visiting birds.

The Future

Now that the public can see the Lily Pool in its new splendor, the challenge is to protect its future and prevent a repetition of the past. Ongoing projects will assure this effort.

Docent Program: A docent program was established when the Lily Pool reopened in the spring of 2002. Volunteers explain the historic and ecological significance of the site. Brochures for self-guided tours are provided, and art, ecology and history classes are invited to study this beautiful site.

Visits and Field Trips: Hours are posted and every effort is made to ensure that the Lily Pool remains a serene setting, regardless of the age of visitors.

Educational Programs: Friends of Lincoln Park has made a commitment to set a budget and raise necessary funds for education and volunteer docent programs at the Lily Pool and “similar landscapes” within Lincoln Park.

When the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool was dedicated on a chilly Chicago morning in October 2001, Chicagoans had cause to rejoice. The city had done it again. It reclaimed a piece of its history and reaffirmed its image as a place where individual effort makes a difference and where people come together to make their neighborhoods work.

Nancy Seeger is president of Nancy Seeger Associates Ltd., a communications company in Evanston, Ill. She can be reached at nseeger@aol.com.

COPYRIGHT 2003 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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