Iowa Building

The Iowa Building on the ground that was always high and dry, at 56th Street and South Shore Drive, not far from the original building, 2017. 


The building that sits in Jackson Park at 56th Street and South Shore Drive is known as the Iowa Building, but this small shelter didn’t greet Iowans in 1893. That honor went to its predecessor, the Jackson Park Pavilion. 

The original pavilion predated the World's Columbian Exposition. It was a product of the South Parks Commission, which was authorized in 1869 to set up a network of parks and boulevards. The boulevards and Washington Park developed fairly quickly, but the commission struggled to gain control of Jackson Park as litigation dragged through the courts. In the 1880s, they decided to develop the section they did control north of 59th Street. 

Paul Cornell, one of the commissioners, had seen the lake rip away half of the beach at East End Park in a storm. He pushed for breakwaters and piers at 56th and 59th Streets and a paved beach of granite blocks. The commission landscaped shaded paths and an open meadow, at first for growing hay (South Parks once sold 366 tons in a year) and later for lawn tennis and baseball. They created two ponds that ran along Stony Island Avenue and expanded the existing lagoon (now known as the Columbian Basin). The commission also built a circuit of carriageways that entered at 57th Street, crossed the lagoons and looped the meadow. 

Transportation was good. The Illinois Central Railroad opened a grand station at the park’s entrance on 57th Street in 1881. Five years later, the cable car extended its tracks from Cottage Grove Avenue and 55th Street eastward to the 56th Street entrance of the park. 

Free concerts started in 1881 and drew crowds in the thousands. Civil War reunions and church clubs held large gatherings. People flocked to the cool lakeside breezes. 

Iowa Building beach

A crowd checks out the racing team of the Farragut Boat Club in July 1890. In the background, their four-man shell sits near the pier. The Farragut and Hyde Park Boat Clubs were also sailing. 

One of the South Parks commissioners was John B. Sherman, a founder of the Union Stock Yards and Transit Company. In 1876, his daughter married a young architect, Daniel H. Burnham. Sherman made sure his son-in-law got jobs. That’s how Jackson Park got its Burnham and Root bridge in 1888 (now known as the Darrow Bridge), Ladies’ Comfort Station  in 1887 (rebuilt in 2022) and the original Jackson Park Pavilion in 1888. Clad in granite and roofed in slate, it was a storm shelter. It was also a dance floor cooled by the lake breezes and lit by calcium lights. Several times a week, up to 500 couples danced to a live orchestra until 11 p.m. The pavilion was booked nearly every day of the week.

Just as the Jackson Park litigation cleared the courts, Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect, approached the commission with an offer they couldn’t refuse — hosting the World’s Fair in undeveloped Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance.

The Board of Fair Managers assigned the state and international pavilions to the area that already had sewers and solid ground. When a mix up about assignments happened, Burnham apologetically offered the pavilion to Iowa, to the state’s delight. The legislature had given them only a third of the funds they wanted so repurposing a finished building saved them a lot of cash. Iowa claimed that Burnham had been inspired by the Chateau de Josselin in Brittany so that was their model. They more than doubled the size and added two additional turrets. 

Sketch of the Iowa Building, 1893

Sketch of the Iowa Building from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

The new addition provided lounges and restrooms for visitors, offices and bedrooms for officials, and a room in the third-floor attic for the janitor. The old ballroom became an exhibition hall, almost every inch of which was covered with corn, millet, corn husks and grasses. Every day, a 50-piece band put on a concert. 

The Iowa Building, 1893

The old ballroom of the Jackson Park Pavilion turned into the exhibition hall for Iowa. Nearly every surface was decorated in plant material, including the model of the state capital in the background. 

One room housed paintings by Iowans that were rejected by the fair’s Palace of Fine Arts. One Iowa painting that was accepted into the Palace, earning an honorable mention from the fair, was “Yucca and Cactus” by an Iowa State University  botany student named George Washington Carver. The painting is still on display at the George Washington Carver Museum in Tuskegee, Alabama. 

After the fair left town, the pavilion shrank back to its original form. The beach was so busy that the commission added a solid line of benches along it, but even 1,500 seats were not enough. 

In 1895, two controversies apparently put an end to dancing. In June, a dance instructor charged an entrance fee of $1 to his event. Those who tried to dance without paying were expelled. A week later, “Mrs. E. Chirpe” of the Englewood Dance Academy charged 50 cents. That caught the attention of the park police, who threw everyone out. The commissioners were adamant that the pavilion was not for financial gain. 

Bloomer Ball

Sketch of the Bloomer Ball on the front page of the July 18, 1895.

The second scandal involved the cycling craze. A well-publicized route was a tour of the South Parks with a rest stop at the pavilion. In July 1895, the Chicago Cycling Club held a series of “Bloomer Balls.” The dancers had to wear cycling clothes to be let in: women in bloomers and men in knickerbockers. The crowd stood six feet deep around the open sides of the ballroom to gawk. The Tribune recoiled in mock dismay. The brouhaha reached the ears of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in New York, who declared that a Bloomer Ball was a great idea. A Tribune editorial, however, thought it was “the essence of ugliness, the concentration of hideousness, the climax of suggestiveness.” That fall the South Parks Commission declared that there would be no more dances in the pavilion.

Jackson Park Pavillion

Jackson Park Pavilion, 1905-1906. This photo provides a clear look at the paved beach, which stretched from 56th Street to 67th Street. A short stretch of the granite pavers can still be seen just north of the 63rd Street Beach. They were unearthed when the concrete revetment was being poured.

With time, the car became king. Lake Shore Drive expanded to four lanes and eventually pushed through the park on new landfill, cutting the park off from the beach. The pavilion was in the way and had to go. Oddly, the name “Iowa Building” shows up when the old building was torn down in 1936. Letters to the Tribune editor complained that no one called it that, but the name stuck. 

The new picnic structure, clad in Wisconsin limestone and financed by the Works Progress Administration and the newly redone Museum of Science and Industry, opened in 1933. It was 25% smaller than the pavilion and 60% smaller than the actual Iowa Building. It had restrooms, a concession stand and a small pool with a fountain, supposedly for washing sand off bathers’ feet, though the highway cut it off from the beach. 

In 2003, when the 57th Street intersection was reconfigured, the building was once more in the way. Construction of the 57th Street underpass cut it off. It decayed through neglect and vandalism. The bathrooms were locked, the fountain stopped working and trees grew through the roof. After a murder there in 2014, the Park District installed one of Indira F. Johnson's sculptures, "Ten Thousand Ripples," to promote peace. Soon after, new chess tables were installed, and the Hyde Park Bonfire Club began meeting there regularly, proving that there’s still a need for a pavilion. Now, in 2023, the Park District is finally bringing the Iowa Building back to life, redoing the walls and roof, and fixing the bathrooms, lighting and fountain, so that Jackson Park can have a working pavilion again.

If you see something around Hyde Park that makes you ask, "What’s that about?", let me know at I might be able to find the story.

(2) comments

Terence herlihy

In 1955 I lived at 5555 Everett (Jackson Towers) and walked through yhe remains of the Iowa Building almost daily

Thanks for the history.

Ross Petersen

I don't think the building was moved for the 2003 reconstruction of the Drive.

Flagstone patios were lost as the Drive expanded. Concession stand closed late 1950's.

Across the Street was the 57th on the lake motel and a restaurant,

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