Lapping Up The Lakefront

By Elizabeth Gogola

Once an underutilized rocky beach, the Park District of Highland Park’s Rosewood Beach is a unique educational and recreational oasis that protects the priceless natural resource that is Lake Michigan.

The $14.5-million renovation project was a collaborative effort between the park district and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) as part of the Great Lakes Fishery and Ecosystem Restoration (GLFER) program. The USACE constructed breakwaters extending 200 feet into the lake to form three protected coves—nature, swimming, and recreation. The park district’s portion of the project included the construction of new, environmentally friendly facilities, including a one-of-a-kind beachfront Interpretive Center, concessions, restrooms, and guard buildings—all connected by a 1,500-foot-long boardwalk nestled against the wooded bluffs.

Project Purpose
As one of only 14 Illinois communities on Lake Michigan, Highland Park for over 100 years has set as a priority to preserve this dynamic and vulnerable open space. The purpose of the renovation was to revitalize the community’s swimming beach and protect the delicate bluff, ravine, and beachfront in danger of being swept away forever.

The Rosewood property was donated to the district in 1928 by Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears, Roebuck Co. In 1945, the Rosenwald children donated $25,000 for construction of a beach house.

Over the decades, harsh conditions took their toll on the beach and beach house. The crumbling building was demolished in 2006. Unfortunately, this left the community’s swimming beach with no functioning restrooms. Steel sea walls provided little protection for the eroding beach. The ravine and bluff suffered greatly from damaging flooding and declining native habitat.

A 2007 Lakefront Master Plan called for sweeping renovations; however, the 2008 economic downturn delayed the plan. In 2011, the project gained traction when the district partnered with the USACE, and a resident task force was appointed to guide the building-development process.

In May 2012, the task force presented to the community a unique, minimalistic design plan blending the infrastructure into the environment and allowing the lake to be the main focus. The board approved the recommendation in August 2012. Construction began in October 2013.

The community-wide grand opening for Rosewood was held on June 6, 2015. Hundreds of families made their way to the beach on that sunny, clear day. Some came to revisit a childhood destination, and some came out of pure curiosity to see in amazement what was done to the once-diminished beach. The response was dramatic, joyful, and heartfelt. “WOW!” was the emotion that reverberated throughout the crowd. Residents now enjoy the lakefront like never before.

Creative Use Of Materials
The park district chose the architect via an unconventional design competition. Eleven firms submitted design concepts to the task force with the project ultimately awarded to Chicago-based Woodhouse Tinucci Architects.

Woodhouse rejected the conventional idea that all functions should be contained in one building. Instead, the firm created a beach walk integrated as a landscape element. Rosewood became in essence a “walk in the park.” The boardwalk hugs the bluff, connecting the ravine trail to the north with the bluff stairs at the south—affording continuous access to the beach along its vast, open east side facing the lake. A series of four, small, low-profile buildings pulled back to the bluff preserves views 20 miles to the south and 40 miles to the north. These created a landscape in which the built environment was absorbed into the natural environment instead of competing with it.

The beachfront is anchored by a boardwalk that leads visitors to the buildings, beach, and Rosewood Park perched atop the bluff. The boardwalk was constructed from ipe, a sustainably forested, dense South American wood, and features built-in loungers, benches, and picnicking areas. The Interpretive Center, lifeguard station, concessions, and restrooms are designed as compact, cedar, glass, and natural-stone structures that complement the surroundings.

The Interpretive Center overlooking the nature cove features three sliding-glass walls, offering a dramatic 180-degree panorama up and down the beach and to the lake’s horizon. Geothermal technology heats and cools the year-round facility. To mitigate bird collision, bird-friendly glass was installed in all of the buildings. The glass features a patterned, UV-reflective coating, making it visible to birds but virtually transparent to humans, thus allowing undisturbed views of Lake Michigan. Low-energy LED lighting is used throughout the site.

The Interpretive Center is equipped with up-to-date scientific equipment, funded in part through a State of Illinois Coastal Management Program education grant, including projecting microscopes, site Wi-Fi, computers, and a 70-inch, flat-screen monitor which communicate the Rosewood conservation efforts in progress.

The shoreline plan included new, low-profile stone breakwaters, extending 200 feet into Lake Michigan. These barriers provide erosion protection to support dune structures and native plantings, and three beach coves greatly expand recreational and interpretive opportunities that enable the park district to simultaneously offer a variety of programming options.

To build the breakwaters, barge loads of 4- to 6-ton stones were hauled to the site. They were carefully selected to interlock in order to form the protective seawall. Stones were placed individually by cranes from on-shore and marine-based platforms.

More than 65,000 cubic yards of sand were trucked to the beach over a four-month period. Laser-guided machinery was used to grade the sand. As a result, the Rosewood recreational beachfront doubled in size where once only rock rose from the water.

Impact Of The Project
The once-deserted swimming beach is now bustling with activities. Residents take part in beach yoga and deep-water swimming. Summer camps, year-round preschool programs, and family events provide fun and education. With the new concessions and restroom buildings, community members can spend a clean, safe, and enjoyable day at the beach. Friends and family can gather for picnics while soaking in the sun and the amazing lakefront. Unlike at other area beaches, casual visitation to Rosewood is free and ADA-accessible.

Increased visitations to Rosewood have also resulted in a bump to the local economy, especially to the adjacent Ravinia Business District. Increased traffic to Rosewood has prompted the city to contribute to a revitalization of this district.

The new Rosewood also has made a positive impact on the natural environment. Energy-efficient lighting and geothermal heating will lighten energy demands now and into the future. Innovative, permeable paving in the parking lot will prevent thousands of gallons of runoff from washing into Lake Michigan—helping to keep drinking water clean for millions of people who rely on it.

The protected coves and opened ravine stream provide for healthy fish habitat and cleaner water. For the first time in 40 years, native lake fish have made their way up the now-accessible stream to spawn. Residents have contacted the park district with their excited tales of big fish and new life that had been brought back to the stream.

Nearly 20,000 native plants were planted by hand along the bluff and stream to prevent erosion and pollutants in the stream. On the beach, American beach grasses and sand reeds now promote small dunes that were once a vital habitat along Illinois’ shoreline.

This summer, a colony of Bank Swallows, an uncommon breeder in the area, have made nests along the ravine stream sand walls. Chicago Botanic Garden volunteers also identified two, rare beach-plant species growing.

To protect the new shoreline, the park district and USACE implemented a five-year, sand-monitoring program. The program will detect any sand erosion so future infrastructure adjustments can be made, if needed.

Rosewood is a newfound social and recreational destination and a source of pride for Highland Park. Rosewood’s impact—in programs at the Interpretive Center, recreation on the beach, or just a quiet stroll along the boardwalk—will be carried throughout the community for generations to come.

Elizabeth Gogola is the Director of Communications & Marketing for the Park District of Highland Park in Highland Park, Ill. Reach her at (847) 579-3136 or lgogola@pdhp.org.