12th Street Beach dates to the 1920s. In 1909, renowned architect Daniel Burnham envisioned a new park composed of several man-made islands between Jackson Park and Grant Park. Northerly Island was the only island that was actually built.
The South Park Commission began creating Northerly Island in 1920. By 1927, nearly the entire island was filled in. The island was later converted into a peninsula.
The Commercial Air Craft Association requested permission to use the island as a temporary landing strip. Shortly thereafter, a group of women’s organizations suggested a public bathing beach instead of a landing field. The commissioners agreed, and created 12th Street Beach.
In 1933 and 1934, Northerly Island and Burnham Park served as the site of Chicago’s second World’s Fair, “A Century of Progress.” In preparation for the fair, the commissioners increased the size of the island even more. The Alder Planetarium opened on the island in time for the fair. It is one of the few structures that remained open after the fair.
By the 1940s, in addition to the public beach, Northerly Island also had paths, walkways, scattered trees and grassy open spaces.
In 1948, a small airport called Meigs Field opened, but this site closed in 1996. The following year, after a new initiative called for the replacement of outdated facilities on the lakefront, the Chicago Park District constructed a new beach house at 12th Street.