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Early History of the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool

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Many people love the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool. It has become a place of respite from the City, and recently from COVID-19. But what do you know about its long history in the Park? As we celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the Conservancy’s and Park District’s restoration of  the Lily Pool, we want to share some of this rich history. Talk to the Docents in the Lily Pool to learn more!

Two women sitting on an outdoor park bench in front of stone lined pool filled with water lily leaves and other ornamental plants.
Lily Pond, c.1909 noopener

The Lily Pool began 1,000 years ago when the glaciers retreated from Chicago and left behind miles of beaches and sand dunes, not unlike what we see today at the Indiana Dunes State Park. In what is now Lincoln Park, the sandy dunes alternated with wet lowland swales where poison ivy thrived, but little else did well. In one of these lowlands, the City built the first lily pool in 1889. This was an artificially heated, brick-lined pool where exotic lilies grew in abundance, producing “gorgeous blossoms of many hues.” Over time, though, the tropical lilies proved hard to cultivate and the Victorian lily pool fell into disrepair.

In 1936, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded improvements to Lincoln Park, including a plan to redesign the Lily Pool. A young landscape draftsman for the Chicago Park District, Alfred Caldwell, re-conceptualized the lily pool as “a sanctuary of the native landscape.” He planted native trees, bushes, and grasses, creating intentional areas of light and shade, expansive views and intimate corners. His vision for the Lily Pool as an escape from the city, a place to go to be immersed in nature, is even more relevant now than it was when he created it 85 years ago.

Caldwell’s original lily pool existed for about 8 years. Then in 1946, the Lincoln Park Zoo took over management of the lily pool and renamed it the Zoo Rookery. The Zoo conceived of it as an exhibit for pelicans, flamingoes, and other exotic birds. The Rookery was very popular both as an exhibit and as a site for concerts. In the late 1960s severe erosion from both human and bird populations inspired the Park District to add tons of new stone to the site and changed Caldwell’s vision.

Black and White photo of lily pool, showing stone paved ground and overhanging trees
Entrance to the Lily Pool (1970)


In 1997, the Chicago Park District and the Lincoln Park Conservancy (formerly Friends of Lincoln Park) worked with the community to develop a restoration plan for the Lily Pool that reinstated Caldwell’s vision for the site. Construction of the $2.4 million project began in 2000 and the re-named Lily Pool opened to the public in spring 2002. Once again a “cool, refreshing, clear place,” the restoration earned the site National Historic Landmark and Chicago Historical Landmark status. The Conservancy has faithfully maintained the site ever since. If you’d like to know more about Alfred Caldwell, read our blog Alfred Caldwell: A Brief History. Learn about the site, its native plants and the animals that call the Lily Pool home, and listen to fun stories while touring the site with a knowledgeable Conservancy docent. Docents are in the Lily Pool on Saturdays and Sundays during the summer season.



Read more about Alfred Caldwell, the Lily Pool, and the 2001 Restoration

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