The Ford Calumet Environmental Center opened late last summer in 270-acre Big Marsh Park around 115th and Stony Island on the Southeast Side.
Two square wood tubes rest atop a long, one-story Cor-Ten steel box that has gone brown-orange with oxidation. It looks like it could be a reclaimed piece, or even pieces, of some of the heavy industrial facilities that line the Calumet River, east of Big Marsh, or Lake Calumet, west of the park.
“The past is meeting the future,” said Joe Valerio, a principal at the architecture firm Valerio Dewalt Train, which designed both the building and the exhibits inside, a $7.8 million project.
The past, represented by the oxidating steel base, is the giant conglomeration of industry that dominated much of southeast Chicago and northwest Indiana: steel mills, Pullman railcar manufacturing, Ford Motor and so many more, some of them now long gone and some still operating. Ford has been at Torrence and 130th Street for 98 years.
The future, represented by the wood tubes, is an aggressive ecological renewal effort on a quiltwork of former industrial parcels on the Southeast Side known as the Calumet Open Space Reserve. Big Marsh is a piece of that quilt, along with parcels called Dead Stick Pond, Hegewisch Marsh, Railroad Marsh and others.
“We wanted to create something that floats above this post-industrial landscape,” Valerio said.
The choice of wood is not only aesthetically right for complementing the wooded surroundings, but also environmentally right: Wood sequesters carbon.
Big Marsh and its building “represent a new imagining, a new awakening of some of these forgotten post-industrial sites on the Southeast Side,” said Stephen Bell, director of the Ford Calumet Environmental Center. The 9,300-square-foot building, he said, “looks like a piece of this landscape that’s been here a long time,” and it will look more so as the steel and wood components weather with age.
Formerly an industrial slag dumping ground, Big Marsh became park district property in 2011 and opened as a park in 2016. It is still a work in progress, with an asphalt path that rings the property under construction this spring and ecological restoration continuing, but it is already popular. Birders come for the wildlife, cyclists come for the 40-acre terrain section, with ramps and moguls and such, as well as the longer trails, and parents come with their kids to teach them to ride bikes on the nice, smooth pavement with no cars.
Another important constituency, Valerio and Bell said, is residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, who have not had big showpiece parks such as Lincoln Park, Jackson Park and Humboldt Park.
The new environmental center fits into the Big Marsh landscape with its message of reuse and rebirth. Besides the steel and wood, other components help it fit in.
If you look at those square wood tubes end-on, from the north or south, you can see that set well back from the end are glass panels, 10 feet high and 10 feet wide. Having them so far inside means the glass panels are fully shadowed by the wood extending beyond them. This way, they do not look transparent to birds in flight, which often crash into windows thinking there is nothing there. Migrating birds passing through on seasonal flyways will be drawn to Big Marsh’s open land and water, so it was essential to make the building bird-friendly. The building’s ground-level glass doors are also shaded, and the glass has frits, or white dots, as an added way to signal to birds that there is a surface there.
The building site is two miles from the nearest sewer line, Valerio said, and running a new line that distance would have cost $2 million. The city building department approved having an onsite blackwater treatment process. (Blackwater is water that contains human waste.)
“This is going on right outside the building, but you don’t smell a thing,” Valerio noted. “It’s part of the miracle of this building being here.”
Much more of the story of how all these changes happened is inside the building in its exhibit hall.
Designed by the media studio at Valerio Dewalt Train, the exhibits show how the land in the watershed of the Grand Calumet and Little Calumet rivers went from a vast network of water and land, rich with flora and fauna, through a century of heavy industry, and now is being restored. The exhibits talk about individual people who were involved. Among them:
James H. Bowen, who, starting in the late 1860s as the head of the Calumet and Chicago Dock and Canal Co., began pushing for the dredging and river-straightening that led to the area becoming an epicenter of Chicago’s heavy industrial boom.
Jim Landing, a birder and environmental studies professor at UIC who in the 1980s started writing about the ecological niches still found and worth saving in the industrialized landscape.
Marian Byrnes, an environmentalist and longtime resident of Jeffrey Manor, several blocks north of Big Marsh, for whom another of the quilt pieces, which she helped save from development, is named.
These people’s stories, the look and character of the building and the overall ecological restoration of Big Marsh “tell the story of this place coming full circle,” Bell said.
Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.
Vashon Jordan Jr. is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @vashon_photo.