The sailboats that race past it during regattas are radio-controlled, and the structure itself is merely a small-scale replica of the real thing, but the Woodlawn Lake lighthouse remains a familiar landmark, rising about 20 feet out of the lake’s center and adding a nautical touch to the manmade body of water.
Small lights atop the lighthouse’s concrete shaft automatically turn on around sunset daily, but it was never intended to guide ships to safe harbor in the night. Only small rowboats, canoes, and other watercraft traverse the lake’s waters, which are roughly 6-9 feet at the deepest point, depending on the last time the lake was dredged.
“Every Christmas, we decorate it,” said Sandy Jenkins, a Parks and Recreation manager who has worked for the department for 10 years, of the lighthouse.
The curious structure has a mysterious origin; City officials do not know definitively when it was installed or by whom. However, several online resources about the Works Progress Administration projects of the 1930s suggest that the agency, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, is responsible for the decorative lighthouse.
The City acquired the near-Northwest Side park in 1918. Long before the land was deeded to the City, it was purchased to create a luxury subdivision called West End Town.
The lake was created by the installation of a dam in 1887. The investors “fell into bad financial times,” Jenkins said, so they leased the lake to various recreation companies. The lake covers about 30 acres today, she said, but some records suggest it was once 80 acres. It’s possible that the lighthouse was part of that failed development, she said. “If the lighthouse was built for a resort-type of development, that would be kind of novel and kind of cool.”
The City built a pool and community center in the park in 1928, but the WPA investments helped improve the park and lake, she said, which had filled with sediment that washed into the lake from area development.
The WPA dredged the lake; built two masonry bridges, a concession stand, and parking lots; improved the tennis courts; and landscaped the area, according to The Living New Deal, a website that documents New Deal public works projects. The total cost, including “a decorative miniature lighthouse” was more than $200,000 at the time.
Regardless of its origins, the lighthouse has become an “iconic” part of the scenic park, Jenkins said, which hosts Fourth of July celebrations and also features an active walking trail, fishing, a dance studio, gym, and a dog park.
“I don’t know what the purpose of [the lighthouse] is,” said Rey Seta, commodore of the Woodlawn Sailing Club. “But it’s very pretty at night.”
Seta’s club hosts three radio-controlled sailing regattas a year at the lake, Seta said, and the lighthouse has become synonymous with photos of the races.
Photographers like to line up a shot of a fleet of the small radio-controlled boats with the lighthouse, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, and Tower of the Americas in the background.
“That’s the money shot,” he said.
The lighthouse itself is hollow and features a large, metal service door near the base that, if the lake is high enough and you have a sturdy enough craft, you can open to crawl inside, Seta said. A ladder within leads to a platform on top.
“I’ve taken many photographers out there during the regattas,” he said.
Seta has been club’s commodore since 1994. The club was founded in 1939, and his father led the group sometime in the 1970s or ’80s. His family moved to area in 1964.
“We grew up on that lake,” he said.
Although the club used to sail boats big enough for people, because the lake is so shallow – 2 to 3 feet in places – and filled with assorted trash, the club has switched largely to radio-controlled sailboats that range from 30 inches to 5 feet long. The lake still has the recurring sediment problem it had before the WPA improvements, and now even more trash is washed into the lake from area streets and neighborhoods, Seta said.
He’d like the City to dredge the entire lake to a depth of at least 6 feet to allow for larger sailboats to use more of the lake.
“When you have a 3-foot lake and a 2-foot shopping cart [on its side in the water],” Seta said, “it doesn’t sink.”