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Indiana Dunes Park Pavilion | Photo © 2020 David Bulit

Indiana Dunes Park Pavilion

Location Class:
Built: 1930 | Abandoned: 1970s
Status: Restored (2023)
Photojournalist: David Bulit

History of the Indiana Sand Dunes

The history of the Dunes Park Pavilion and the Indiana Dunes dates back to 200 BCE, and evidence points to Native American communities using the area as a key hunting ground. In the early 1500s, European exploration and trade introduced a large rift in tribal relations. Entire populations moved westward, while others aimed to dominate large geographic trade areas, with the dunes becoming a middle point on a journey from east to west.

The Establishment of Towns and Communities at the Dunes

In 1822, French Canadian and fur trader Joseph Bailly established a trading post near present-day Porter, Indiana, and was the earliest recorded settler in the dunes. He was soon joined by other settlers, and communities in the dunes began to develop, including Tremont, Porter, Chesterton, and the Town of Pines. City West was one of several ghost towns situated in the dunes. Planned to rival Chicago, the town was partially built in 1837 on the site of what would become the Indiana Dunes National Park before being abandoned that same summer during a national economic crisis. The remains of the town, located near where the pavilion now stands, were destroyed in a forest fire in the 1850s.

Indiana Dunes Park Pavilion
Devil’s Slide seen from the Dunes Park Pavilion at Indiana Dunes State Park, circa 1960s. Image Courtesy of Steve Shook.

State Park Designation

In 1899, an article was published in the Botanical Gazette by University of Chicago botanist Henry Chandler Cowles about the unique flora of the dunes, triggering a movement to preserve the area. Stephen Mather, first director of the National Parks Service, suggested the creation of a “Sands Dunes National Park,” a vision he would not live to see fulfilled but one that would eventually come to fruition. This sparked a conflict about whether the lakeshore should be industrialized or preserved for future generations. Many pointed to the success of U.S. Steel along Gary’s shoreline in support of maintaining the entire length of the lakeshore for industrialization.

The creation of the park was delayed due to World War I. Instead of setting aside land for a national park, the state of Indiana created Indiana Dunes State Park in 1926. That didn’t satisfy those who had been pushing for a national park. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the efforts made toward creating a national park gained the attention of Illinois Senator Paul Douglas.

Finally, a compromise was reached under the Kennedy administration, which involved creating a national park if a port could be constructed on the lakeshore. Douglas led the congressional effort, making sure the Port of Indiana would be constructed only after the authorization of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill, and since its authorization, it has been expanded four times, in 1976, 1980, 1986, and 1992, encompassing over 15,000 acres across three Indiana counties.

Indiana Dunes Park Pavilion
The Indiana Dunes Park Pavilion, as seen from the Devil’s Slide sand dune

National Park Designation

Many decades later, a bill was put forth to reclassify the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as the Indiana Dunes National Park, sponsored by Representative Pete Visclosky, Senators Todd Young and Mike Braun, and previously Senator Joe Donnelly. The National Park Service opposed the redesignation as it was inconsistent with the Service’s naming conventions and the Indiana Dunes had more in common with national lakeshores and seashores than national parks, which are typically much larger.

H.R. 1488 passed the House of Representatives on November 1, 2017, but did not receive a vote in the Senate. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019 included the bill as a provision, and President Donald Trump signed the legislation on February 15, 2019, creating the country’s 61st national park and the first in Indiana.

Indiana Sand Dunes Pavilion

When Indiana Dunes State Park was created in 1926, a plan was implemented to build a facility to serve the park’s visitors, especially those visiting the beach. Constructed in 1929 at $100,000, the two-story Indiana Dunes Park Pavilion served as a bathhouse and restaurant, featuring a fine-dining restaurant, restrooms, and concessions. The rooftop was used as an observation deck.

Over the years, the Indiana Department of National Resources (DNR) could not adequately fund interior renovations or maintenance. In 1973, the federal government provided financial assistance through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and after improvements were made, the building again fell into decline. By the 21st century, a small concession operated only during the summer, as did a lifeguard office, and most of the building was used for storage.

Indiana Dunes Park Pavilion
Dunes Park Pavilion dining Room at Indiana Dunes State Park. c. 1930s. Image Courtesy of Steve Shook.

An effort was made to restore the facility to its original use. So, the State of Indiana contracted Pavilion Partners, LLC in 2014 for the adaptive reuse of the structure and the addition of a banquet hall that would complement not only the historic building but also the natural features of the area. The DNR amended the contract, declaring that the “beach offering,” including concessions, will be ready by Memorial Day weekend, restaurants will be completed by May 2020, or Pavilion Partners will face thousands of penalties.

Dunes Action, a grassroots organization that supports the restoration of the pavilion, opposes the plan Pavilion Partners has put forth, which involves a high glass-walled bar on the roof of the building and two balconies overlooking the lake. Not only will the building’s character be destroyed, but the proposal already features a bar on both the first and second floors. Dunes Action contends that Pavilion Partners are not abiding by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, exclaiming that “a property used for its historic purpose should require minimal change to the defining characteristics of the building” and “the historic character of a property shall be retained and preserved.”

After a controversial six-year restoration of the historic pavilion, Pavilion Partners and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources celebrated the grand opening of the Dunes Pavilion on June 17, 2021. The $5 million restoration capped off years of controversy over what some saw as politically connected developers being handed public land and over liquor sales in a park where alcohol isn’t allowed.

Indiana Dunes Park Pavilion
Restaurant and Bathing Pavilion at Indiana Dunes State Park. 1933. Image Courtesy of Steve Shook.
David Bulit

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