What’s That Building? The Modernist Bathhouses At Illinois Beach State Park

On Illinois’ only natural shoreline, two midcentury bathhouses sit unused, largely because their beach is being washed away from erosion.

Illinois Beach State Park Bathhouses
About 50 north of the Loop, near Zion, lll., two nearly identical, old bathhouses stand with rolling concrete roofs that mimic the waves on nearby Lake Michigan. Jason Marck / WBEZ
Illinois Beach State Park Bathhouses
About 50 north of the Loop, near Zion, lll., two nearly identical, old bathhouses stand with rolling concrete roofs that mimic the waves on nearby Lake Michigan. Jason Marck / WBEZ

What’s That Building? The Modernist Bathhouses At Illinois Beach State Park

On Illinois’ only natural shoreline, two midcentury bathhouses sit unused, largely because their beach is being washed away from erosion.

About 50 north of the Loop, near Zion, lll., two nearly identical, old bathhouses stand with rolling concrete roofs that mimic the waves on nearby Lake Michigan. Jason Marck / WBEZ

Many people go to Adeline Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park to camp or hike at the only natural dunes remaining on the Illinois shoreline. But they may not expect to find a wild example of Jet Age modernist architecture.

About 50 north of the Loop, near Zion, lll., two nearly identical, old bathhouses stand with rolling concrete roofs that mimic the waves on nearby Lake Michigan.

Except for a few who stop for a photo op, the bathhouses sit unused, largely because their beach has been mostly washed away due to erosion, said Bob Feffer, the superintendent of the state park. The northern building has been closed since at least 1987, and the southern — which now sits only about 20 yards from the water — closed in the early 2000s.

The buildings were designed only to be used in the summer, with changing rooms and showers for Lake Michigan bathers. The south bathhouse features a tall, spindly lifeguard tower that stretches up toward the sky and both have concrete screens to emphasize their indoor/outdoor characteristics.

The buildings are at opposite ends of a beachfront walkway — parts of which are falling into the lake. Along the roughly half-mile walk between the bathhouses, a few picnic structures are scattered that mimic the roll-top roofs. Their kicky architecture is right out of 1960, the year that these structures opened.

And with them opened a new era’s approach to state park lodges.

They stand in contrast to older log and stone buildings at other state parks like Starved Rock and White Pines Forest, where the bathhouses were built to be forward-looking.

The lodge at Starved Rock State Park. Courtesy of Magicpiano/Creative Commons
A bathhouse at Illinois Beach State Park Jason Marck/WBEZ

Illinois State Beach Park opened in 1948 and just a decade later, then Illinois Gov. William Stratton announced a nearly $2.7 million remodel to rival Jones Beach State Park in New York. That’s equal to $25.1 million today. The renovation plans included a new lodge, a small zoo, three bathhouses, campgrounds and more, although not all were completed.

The buildings were designed by Barancick & Cole, the architecture firm that also worked on the Chicago-based Golden Point hamburger chain, a mid-century design with a triangular red roof that touched the ground and a golden steeple poking out of the top. They’d later build several nice — but not particularly fabulous — modernist high rise buildings in North Side neighborhoods.

The lodge and bathhouses were a matching set, said Anthony Rubano of the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office. Today, the lodge has been remodeled so many times the resemblance to the original structure is gone. One of the bathhouses has even been demolished.

Illinois Beach State Park Picnic Shelter
Along the roughly half-mile walk between the bathhouses, a few picnic structures are scattered that mimic the roll-top roofs. Jason Marck / WBEZ

Feffer, who said he’s been told by officials in Springfield the buildings can’t be torn down because of their age, wants to see the walls removed and the wave-top roofs retained as picnic shelters. But even that might be hard, because breaking open the concrete construction could have unforeseen consequences.

The park is building a new concession building a little distance away, and for now, these remnants of modernist architecture sit in benign neglect, as they have for decades.