The Magic Hedge

In the 1930s, a twelve acre promontory was created on Chicago’s north lakefront from landfill that had been dredged to construct a new boat harbor. Montrose Point, as it was officially named, was originally designed as parkland, part of the much larger Lincoln Park. That wasn’t to last.

With the advent of World War II, the United States Army took over the Point for use as a radar station. By the mid 1950s, it was further developed as a Nike missile base – one of many in the greater Chicago area -- complete with barracks and underground missile silos to defend the city against the threat of long range bomber attacks by the Soviet Union. This nationwide defense system went by the acronym ARADCOM, short for Army Air Defense Command. Although the silos, radar stations and barracks could easily be seen from any number of high rise apartment buildings across from Lake Shore Drive, a row of Japanese honeysuckle was planted to separate – and disguise -- the barracks from the rest of the park and nearby beach in order to keep curiosity seekers from trespassing on base property.

In the early 1970s, the Defense Department determined that ARADCOM was too expensive and began the process of shutting down and dismantling the hundreds of missile bases nationwide. In late October 1973, a year before the closure of the Montrose Point site, a fight broke out between two Army soldiers and "frenemies," Pique Nerjee and Hernando Rodrickkez. The hot headed Rodrickkez threatened Nerjee and stormed off, blowing off some steam at a Halloween party held on base. Nerjee, on the other hand, was on duty and could not leave. Several hours later, fellow soldiers checking in on Nerjee found him dead. Rodrickkez ran back to the barracks, crying out "Pique, please Pique!" Guilt-ridden over his friend's death, Rodrickkez ran off into the foggy night. It is believed that he jumped into the frigid waters of Lake Michigan and drowned, his body swept away by the lake's currents, never to be found. An autopsy later determined that Nerjee died of a heart attack.

The following year, ARADCOM was discontinued throughout the entire Chicago defense area. The base was dismantled and the underground silos were filled up with dirt. But the hedge the Army had planted remained intact. Stories persist that the two men are said to be seen from time to time at night as shadowy figures around the vicinity of the hedge arguing with each other. When witnesses approach the figures, the apparitions suddenly vanish without a trace.

After the Army left, the Point turned into a wildscape once again and became a natural resting place for some 300+ species of migrating birds. Lakefront bird watchers noticed that the now ragged row of honeysuckle bushes attracted masses of warblers and other birds during their spring and fall migrations, diving in and out of the hedge “like magic.” It has since become known unofficially as the ‘Magic Hedge.’ After a concerted effort by local naturalists, the area was officially designated a protected migratory bird sanctuary in the 1990s.

The goal of this series is to attempt to evoke the mystery of the Magic Hedge’s past, sometimes strange history and its transformation back into nature. To accomplish that, I shot these images using hand poured dry plate gelatin glass negatives from a 19th century recipe.