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The group hopes to restore the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, preserving it for future generations

A non-profit organization wants to restore the old Chicago Harbor Lighthouse and use the landmark as a teaching tool for younger generations, as well as attracting more visitors to the city.

On Wednesday, Friends of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse shared their vision for the city’s iconic maritime history with members of the Cliff Dwellers Club, an organization that supports arts and culture, at 200 S. Michigan Ave. in the Loop.

Members of the Cliff Dwellers Club and Friends of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse attend a presentation on the lighthouse’s history and restoration efforts and open it to visitors.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

They envision a three-stage plan: The first is to allow boat tours to take visitors close to the site. The second is restoring the lighthouse so that it is safe enough for ships to dock and people to enter it. And the final phase is preserving and “celebrating” the lighthouse with exhibits that showcase its history, as well as restoring some of the rooms to their original condition.

Kurt Lentsch, president of Friends of the Chicago Lighthouse, said schools and other organizations can become nonprofit partners to teach kids about the city’s maritime history by visiting the site.

Kurt Lentsch Dreamer Chairman & President of Friends of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse gives a presentation on the history and restoration efforts of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse at the Cliff Dweller's Club, Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

Kurt Lentsch, president of Friends of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, envisions schools and other organizations partnering with his group to teach kids about the city’s maritime history.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“We want to partner with community-based organizations, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Public Library, to reach out to underserved communities and get kids to the lakeside, on the boats, on the lake, maybe for the first time in their lives, and also go to lighthouses and learn about the impact of lighthouses on Chicago developments,” said Lentsch.

Preservation architect Edward Torrez said there is also enough space on site to create an event space that can accommodate up to 150 people.

Preservation Architect Edward Torrez with Bauer Latoza Studio gives a presentation on the history and restoration efforts of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse at the Cliff Dweller's Club, Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

Edward Torrez, a preservation architect with BauerLatoza Studio, says the lighthouse can be turned into an event space that can accommodate up to 150 people.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“What we want to do is preserve it, make it a public space for everyone, to learn about technology, engineering and navigation, and the history of Chicago,” said Torrez. “It really should be shared.”

There is no set timeline on the group plan. They have presented their vision to other organizations across the city to raise awareness of their cause.

The lighthouse was built in 1893 and rebuilt at its current location — east of the Naval Pier — in 1917.

Everything has been abandoned for decades. Still works. But it’s fully automated, no longer requiring a lighthouse keeper since the 1970s.

The city has owned the lighthouse since the Coast Guard, National Park Service and Public Services Administration signed a deed in 2009 with an agreement that the city would find a way to restore the damaged building to public use.

But little to no work has been done on the lighthouse since. Several ideas to revive the building have emerged in recent years, including turning it into a luxury hotel, a museum with a cafe, and a bed and breakfast.

After seeing that no progress was being made to reuse the lighthouse, the federal government in 2020 said it wanted to retake it from the city. If that happens, the government will be tasked with finding new applicants for the location. If no one comes forward, the site will be auctioned off to the highest bidder, including private owners.

Lentsch said under no circumstances should lighthouses be allowed to be placed on the auction block and taken from the public.

“This is such an important icon for the city of Chicago, we feel it should remain under public ownership,” Lentsch said, adding that city officials had expressed support for the group’s plan.

The lighthouse has visible exterior damage, but the bones appear to be in decent condition, according to a city commissioned appraisal completed in 2015 by Torrez’s firm, BauerLatoza Studio.

An estimate of the cost of making the building safe for visitors was included in the report but redacted in the copy released by city officials.

But Lentsch said his group would likely need to raise between $3 million and $5 million to restore the lighthouse. These figures still have to be finalized by the preservation team that is being formed. The next step is to step up their fundraising efforts.

“You have to go in there and see what it’s like, and your kids have to go there,” said Torrez. “That’s what we’re trying to do, trying to make everyone see how important that structure is to our history.”

Contributing: Mitch Dudek

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