When WBEZ listener Kevin Borgia bikes along the Lakefront Trail, he regularly passes a “seemingly abandoned building in Jackson Park.”
“It is kind of a neoclassical structure with a tile roof. It’s pretty dilapidated and it’s fenced off right now,” Borgia recently wrote to WBEZ. “Is this a building from the Chicago World’s Fair?”
The short answer is no, the Jackson Park comfort station isn’t from the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, but it’s no surprise Borgia would think so. With its columns and pilasters, it looks like a miniature piece of the neoclassical grandeur we recognize from the Museum of Science and Industry, which was constructed for the World’s Fair.
The comfort station was designed in 1912 by the architecture firm D. H. Burnham & Co., whose chief, Daniel Burnham, famously oversaw design and construction of the World’s Fair two decades earlier. However, Burnham died in 1912, so it’s unlikely he designed this small Jackson Park structure. An unnamed architect working for Burnham’s firm likely made a nice homage to the original look of the fair.
The structure, about 40 feet long and a story high, is isolated on a knoll in the Jackson Park golf course, close to the shoulder of Marquette Drive. The comfort station, or what we today would just call “restrooms,” was designed with men’s bathrooms on one side, women’s on the other and an open-air space between them where columns frame a view of Lake Michigan.
The structure was built because the surrounding golf course was so busy that existing comfort stations couldn’t handle all the traffic, according to the Chicago Park District. Today, the building near the ninth hole is protected by a chain-link fence because much of the roof is collapsed and the steel rods reinforcing the crumbling columns are visible.
The placement of the building was chosen by another firm with a long history in Jackson Park: Olmsted Brothers, the successor to Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the original grouping that includes Jackson Park, the Midway Plaisance and Washington Park in 1871.
It’s not clear when the comfort station went out of use, but its decline is alarming, both because of its lineage and because of its visibility.
Although the building now looks more like ruins than a classical temple, the comfort station shows up in the designs for a renovation of the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses spearheaded by Tiger Woods. The plan was announced in 2016, but is evidently still in limbo. The structure can also be seen in the Chicago Park District’s 2018 “South Lakefront Framework,” a plan for revitalizing the parks. In both, it’s called the Burnham building.
The park district has not commented on plans for the building after a driver crashed her Jeep into the building in late February.
A little less than a quarter-mile west of the rundown comfort station, there’s a small cube of a building in the golf course on the west side of Jeffery Boulevard. That building has many of the same elements as the comfort station: tile roof, row of square windows with asterisk panels, pilasters projecting from the concrete wall.
The Jeffery Boulevard structure looks like it was built at the same time as the comfort station, but it’s actually a pump house for the irrigation system that was built in 1988 and replicated comfort station’s look, according to park district communications officer Michele Lemons. So what we have here is an homage (the pump house) to an homage (the comfort station) to an influential world’s fair and its architect.
Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor.