Ask Geoffrey: Chicago’s Lakefront History

Geoffrey Baer Heads to the Pier

It's finally summer! Geoffrey's headed for the lakefront with three questions about the area around Chicago's most popular tourist destination.

What can you tell me about "Rocky," who had a bait shop and tugboat at Navy Pier and took you out to the breakwall on his boat to go fishing in the ‘60s and ‘70s?

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— Manuel Reyes, Berwyn

This question takes us back to the days before Navy Pier was transformed into the tourist attraction it is today, and it was a crumbling relic on the lakefront. Just south of the pier in a ramshackle area at the water’s edge was a legendary little shack called Rocky and Sons Fish House. It started out as a bait shop run by a commercial perch fisherman named Joe “Rocky” Panzo and his family. The business was open every year from April Fools’ Day to Thanksgiving.

Rocky Panzo moved to Chicago from Italy in 1914. We spoke to his grandson Joe Panzo, who is a chiropractor on Chicago’s South Side. According to Joe, they’d sing a song while boating and fishing: “A boat ride, a boat ride; it’ll tickle your toes and curl your hair; it’ll make you feel like a millionaire.” Joe says his uncle still sings that song to this day.

But you don’t have to be a lakefront fisherman to have fond memories of Rocky’s because in the 1960s he started selling fried perch, oysters, smelt, and most famously shrimp by the bagful for less than $5. There were wooden benches outside so diners could enjoy their meal with a view of the lake post-industrial wasteland that was the lakefront back then. Rocky himself could often be found sitting in a blue rocking chair in front of the shop.

Rocky’s sons took over the business and kept it going until the late ‘80s, but they had to close the business when renovation began on Navy Pier and the surrounding waterfront. Our viewer also remembers Joe ferrying fishermen to a breakwall. According to Rocky’s grandson, the Panzos never had such a service, but other boaters in that area used to row fishermen to an old breakwall called Dime Pier and that’s the subject of our next question.

I used to sail up to Dime Pier on the south side of Navy Pier and get food and drink. How did it get there and what happened to it?
--Carole Pohn, Lincoln Park

All that’s left of Dime Pier today is a stretch of deteriorating wooden pilings and rocks. It was built in 1916 as a breakwater to protect the south side of Navy Pier. This was before the lock at the mouth of the river and the outer breakwalls were built, so the south side of Navy Pier was exposed to waves. Some steamship companies refused to use the exposed pier until a breakwall was built. So it had very practical origins, but it quickly became attractive to commercial and recreational fishermen, including Rocky, who did much of his fishing there.

Since it was only built as a breakwater it was not attached to shore, so local boaters charged fisherman a dime to take them to the pier – which is where the name originated. For a while it was even home to a shack where you could dine on fried perch for 50 cents.  This was before Rocky Panzo expanded his operation from a bait shop to serving seafood.

Navy Pier was one of several lakefront commercial shipping piers proposed in the Burnham Plan of 1909 and a subsequent plan in the 1920s. What is now Navy Pier was originally called “Municipal Pier #2.” Dime Pier was the site of a proposed Municipal Pier #1, but that pier was never built, nor were any other piers.

A few years ago, the Chicago Park District planned to build a new half-mile long pier on top of the old pilings of Dime Pier as part of a so-called Gateway Harbor with slips for boaters and restaurant and retail space, but the project has since been put on hold.

And there’s another Rocky Panzo connection to Dime Pier. If you look closely, in the center of the pier is a now-skeletal tree. According to a Chicago Tribune story, that was a peach tree that Rocky claimed to have accidentally planted when he dropped a peach pit on Dime Pier and later found it sprouting. In the following years, the tree bore fruit, which Rocky would offer fishermen on the pier.

Can you tell more about the creation of Olive Park, next to Ohio Beach, and if there is any significance to the design of the park as a memorial with its circular fountains?
--Lee Stough, Near North Side

Olive Park is hidden in plain view along the lakefront just steps from Navy Pier and many of our viewers have probably never visited or even noticed it, despite the fact that it offers a really wonderful view of the skyline. It’s on the grounds of the largest water purification plant in America, the James Jardine plant, a 61-acre peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan just north of Navy Pier. The park and plant were built in the late 1960s. The park is owned by the water department, not the Chicago Park District. It’s gated at 8:00 pm every night as part of treatment plant security.

Olive Park was named for Vietnam War hero Milton Lee Olive. He became the first African-American awarded the Medal of Honor for service in Vietnam after he smothered a grenade with his body to save his regiment in 1965. There’s a monument to him at the east end of the park.

Olive Park is one of three green spaces in Chicago to be designed by renowned landscape architect Dan Kiley. The other two are at the Botanical Gardens and the South Garden of the Art Institute.  At Olive Park, a pathway lined by trees called an alleé leads visitors to five circular fountains of different sizes dotting the gently rolling lawn connected by concrete paths. Kiley said the fountains represent the five Great Lakes, and tie the park’s design to the purpose of the adjacent water filtration plant. Each fountain has a central jet capable of spraying 100 feet into the air, but these days the fountains are dry.  Water department spokesperson Gary Litherland told us the original underground pipes are failing and the fountains can’t be turned on again until the pipes are replaced, which is a low-level priority right now.

Back in October 2013, we visited the 1893 Chicago Athletic Association building as it was just beginning renovations. Under the demolition dust and drop cloths were the bones of what turned into a spectacular transformation into a 240-room hotel, restaurant, and bar complex just across Michigan Avenue from Millennium Park. Much of the CAA building’s intricate interiors were restored or reproduced, and new details nod to the building’s sporting history – like reusing the fencing room floors to line the elevator walls, and pommel horse ottomans at the foot of guest room beds. Check in at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel with the tour below!

Credit: Art Advisory ServiceSpeaking of the guest rooms, take a close look at the artwork in the photo to the left. According to the hotel, most of the CAA’s art was auctioned off when the association closed, but during the renovation a handful of prints were found in the building’s basement.

The Roman and Williams design firm modernized the recovered prints with cheeky additions, and the results now adorn the guest room walls – you can see four of them up close in the slideshow below.

Credit: Art Advisory Service

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