I traveled to Geneva, Illinois, last week to see the results of our Chicagoland Partners in Preservation grant on the Viking Ship. Constructed in 1892 as an exact replica of a 9th century vessel, the Viking Ship sailed from Norway to Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 in an attempt to prove that Leif Ericksson and Viking sailors could have reached North America before Columbus.
For much of the twentieth century the ship remained in Chicago as part of the Chicago Park District, until a local volunteer group in Geneva offered to take it and raise funds for a restoration. Unfortunately, those plans never came to fruition. The ship sat neglected and open to the elements under a tarp in Good Templar Park for several years. With no plan for its stabilization, and no funding available for repairs or relocation, Landmarks Illinois placed the Viking Ship on their 2007 statewide endangered list to draw attention to its plight.
But the Viking Ship has come a long way in the past 12 months, thanks in large part to the hard work and dedication of Liz Safanda, the Preservation Partners of Fox Valley (PPFV), and many others. With assistance from a Partners in Preservation grant and local fundraising, the ship has undergone a remarkable transformation. The steel cradle carrying the ship was modified with several new supports, a system of cables and turnbuckles was installed to carefully return the ship to its proper position, the sternpost was straightened, and over a dozen frames were added to reduce stress from the many split and cracked planks.
While stabilization of the ship was the top priority for Liz and PPFV, they also felt that it was important to improve security and access to the Ship. This was accomplished through modifications to the enclosure that made it much more secure, and the installation of a new accessible ramp that will allow many more visitors to view the Ship -- and its repairs -- up close.
While this represents only the first step in the restoration process for the Viking Ship, it was a very significant one that gave the local preservationists the support and encouragement they needed to tackle a rather daunting project. While Liz admits that she was a little worried at first, she and her fellow "21st-century Vikings" say they were thrilled to participate in the stabilization project that saved a very significant piece of Chicago's history.
– Christina Morris
Christina Morris is a program officer in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Midwest Office.