Nature on the Waterfront
Rosewood Beach in Highland Park, Ill.
By Dave Ramont
Businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald was born and raised in Springfield, Ill., a few blocks from the Abraham Lincoln residence during Lincoln's presidency. He became chairman of Sears, and established the Rosenwald Fund, which donated more than $70 million to support education of black children in the rural South, and also supported other educational and cultural institutions. In 1928 he donated the Rosewood property on the shores of Lake Michigan to the Park District of Highland Park, Ill., and in 1945 his children donated $25,000 to construct a beach house there.
But over the years, flooding and harsh conditions took their toll on Rosewood's scenic ravine and bluff. Native habitat declined, the beach eroded dramatically, and in 2006 the crumbling beach house was demolished, leaving the community's swimming beach without functioning restrooms or changing facilities.
The park district wanted to protect the site from further decay, and in 2011 they partnered with the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to revitalize Rosewood Beach. A plan was developed by the Lakefront Planning Commission, which included local, state and federal officials, as well as extensive input from Highland Park residents.
Opening in June 2015 after a $14.5 million renovation, the new Rosewood Beach combines outdoor recreation with environmental stewardship and nature education. It is free and ADA-accessible. New amenities include a beachfront Interpretive Center, concessions, restrooms, guard buildings and an expanded playground—all connected by a 1,500-foot boardwalk nestled against the wooded bluffs.
Activities at Rosewood include concerts and outdoor movies, game nights, geocaching, and wine & art events. There are yoga and fitness classes, environmental programs, paddleboard rentals and beach volleyball. School field trips and summer camps utilize the Interpretive Center to learn about water quality, fish habitat, and ravine and bluff ecosystems.
To protect the beach from erosion, the USACE constructed stone and steel breakwaters extending 200 feet into the lake, forming three protected coves: a natural cove used for ecological and nature programs, a guarded swimming cove, and a recreation cove. Additionally, 65,000 cubic yards of sand was trucked in to expand the beach.
Eleven architectural firms submitted design concepts through a competition staged by the park district, with Chicago-based Woodhouse Tinucci Architects being awarded the opportunity to work alongside the USACE and the park district. David Woodhouse and Andy Tinucci described how "The competition allowed us to express our vision for producing an experience on the site—rather than a building—that also met all of their needs."
The architects rejected the idea that all functions should be served in one building. The idea for a beach boardwalk was born after they visited the site and observed patrons walking the lakefront, and then looping around into the ravine and back up to the bluff. "The project and improvement should be a boardwalk, and the buildings should grow from that," they explained.
The boardwalk features built-in loungers, benches and picnicking areas. It hugs the bluff, connecting the ravine trail to the north with the bluff stairs at the south, affording continuous access to the beach. Four small, low-profile buildings pulled back to the bluff preserve views 20 miles to the south and 40 miles to the north. "It allowed us to enclose the smallest amount of square footage and tuck the buildings along the bluff side of the narrow site, disrupting zero views and never coming between patrons and the lake itself," according to Woodhouse and Tinucci.
The boardwalk was constructed from ipe, a sustainably-forested South American wood. Woodhouse and Tinucci describe it as being very dense, making it pest- and damage-resistant, and therefore an ideal walking surface. "It's an excellent material choice for this application because it weathers slowly and naturally through its innate characteristics."
The Interpretive Center overlooks the nature cove and features three sliding glass walls, offering a dramatic 180-degree panorama up and down the beach and to the lake's horizon. "It's made entirely of natural materials, many of which are sourced locally, such as the stone. The glass has a ceramic frit that's invisible to the naked eye so it remains transparent but visible by birds to prevent bird strikes," Tinucci said.
In keeping with Highland Park's commitment to environmental stewardship, geothermal technology is used to heat and cool the center, and low-energy LED lighting is used throughout the site. Permeable paving in the parking lot prevents thousands of gallons of runoff from washing into Lake Michigan.
The protected coves and open ravine stream provide healthy fish habitat and cleaner water, and native lake fish are returning to spawn. Nearly 20,000 native plants were planted to prevent erosion and pollutants in the stream, and birds are once again nesting along the ravine stream sand walls.
The award-winning Rosewood Beach facility blends recreation components with protection of the natural environment, a priority of Highland Park's Park District for more than 100 years.