On Saturday morning at Promontory Point, synchronized swimmers in tall, Hennin-like hats with streamers and flat Tudor-style caps paddled in time to music. This “land and water show” kicked off the first annual Promontory Point Day, a weekend of activities and performances celebrating the park’s 85th year open. The event was hosted by the Promontory Point Conservancy, a nonprofit advocating for the preservation of the Point’s historic limestone revetment, to drum up community support for its preservation.
At the entrance to the park, just through the 55th Street viaduct, I was greeted by Conservancy stalwarts Debra Hammond and Michael Scott, who were arranging a display of "Save the Point… Again!" bumper stickers, "Limestone Rocks" buttons, t-shirts and pamphlets advocating for the conservation and restoration of the limestone. Next to their tables was the Point’s National Register of Historical Places Landmark plaque, a designation the park received in 2018 amidst preservation efforts.
"Want a t-shirt?" asked Scott. "They're free."
All day along the park’s shoreline people scrambled over the limestone blocks, swimmers braved the cold water of Lake Michigan and a couple dozen sunbathers basked. Inland, on the Point's central green, kids flew kites and dogs chased after frisbees. Picnickers lounged in hammocks and around fire pits — called “Council Rings” — designed by the Point’s renowned landscape architect Alfred Caldwell. (Just days before, at a May 26 press conference promoting Point Day and recent preservation efforts, the Conservancy commemorated what would have been Caldwell’s 103rd birthday.)
On the Point’s south side, Tim Samuelson, Chicago's first official cultural historian, wore one of those pointy hats as he watched the synchronized swimmers. He said, “the Point is like no other place in Chicago.”
"You're partially on land, you're partially on the water… The whole idea with the Point is to make this transition between a place of land and a place of water," mused Samuelson. "You don't really have that kind of interface with concrete. Concrete really doesn't have a soul, these rocks really do."
On the northside of the Point sculptor Roman Villarreal was demonstrating stone carving. When I approached Villarreal, he was watching a 5-year-old boy tap a chisel with a hammer.
In 1986, Villarreal, the sculptor Jose Moreno and two assistants surreptitiously carved a large mermaid from a limestone block they had found along the lakeshore near 41st Street.
"The beauty of the mermaid when she was first carved in the lakefront is that the only people that knew that she was there (were) the people from Hyde Park,” said Villarreal. “It became their mystery, their little secret until years and years later."
As we talked, a young man with a dog approached Villarreal and said that he had scattered his previous dog’s ashes around the mermaid sculpture.
According to author and geologist Bill Swislow, who led walking tours of the revetment Saturday and Sunday, there are more than 150 carvings throughout the Point’s limestone blocks.
"There's a lot that can be done with the stones creatively,” said Villarreal of the carvings. “This is unlimited."
Nearby the sculpture demonstration was a group of 20 picnickers.
"I'm partying with my friends and family, we're here for my birthday," said Hyde Parker and Murray Elementary School alumna Morgan McClelland. " I've got people gathered from all over the South Side of Chicago."
While the Point was packed with people throughout the day, there was little activity along the concrete-tiered shoreline to the north.
One of the synchronized swimmers, Jennefer Rossi, had spoken a few days earlier at the May 26th press conference in promotion of Point Day.
“I found poetry in Chicago… The stones at the Point are exactly that,” said Rossi. “They, like the lake itself, are a bit of poetry that we are lucky enough is accessible to the public at large. And that is such a gift.”