Northerly Island is a 91-acre (370,000 m2) man-made peninsula along Chicago's lakefront. The site of the Adler Planetarium, Northerly Island connects to the mainland through a narrow isthmus along Solidarity Drive dominated by Neoclassical sculptures of Kościuszko, Havliček and Copernicus. With the demolition of Meigs Field Airport, it is now a part of the Museum Campus and has been converted into parkland. A semi-temporary concert venue, the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion occupies part of the site of the former airport.
The idea for Northerly Island began with Daniel Burnham’s “Plan of Chicago” which called for the creation of Northerly Island as a lakefront park at the northern end of a five-island chain between Jackson Park and 12th Street, the only lakefront structure to be built based on Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago (a plan created just over 5 years after the Wright Brothers' historic first flight). In the image to the upper right, Northerly Island forms the southern border of Chicago Harbor (now Monroe Harbor). As indicated by the color green on the original plan, the island was to be populated by trees and grass for the public enjoyment. Daniel Burnham passed away in 1912. By 1916, Edward H. Bennett, co-author of the Plan of Chicago, wrote that a lakefront location would be most suitable for an airport serving the central business district. By 1922, Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson recommended locating the downtown airport at Northerly Island. Work on the island began in 1920 when Chicago voters approved a $20 million bond issue to create Northerly Island, with construction completed by 1925. Due to the Great Depression and WW II, the proposed airport, later named Meigs Field, did not open until 1946.
A short time later in 1930 Adler Planetarium was built, and in 1933-34 the island was at the center of festivities at the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair. Taking part in the Century of Progress Exposition, 24 Italian Savoia-Marchetti S55X flying boats, under the command of General Italo Balbo, make the first transatlantic formation flight between Italy and Chicago. Ironically, only flying boats could be used because Chicago did not yet have a suitable nearby airport, except for Grant Park, which was occasionally used as a landing strip. Local publishing mogul Merrill C. Meigs supported earlier recommendations for converting Northerly Island into an airport, but construction did not begin for numerous reasons, such as lack of funds during the Great Depression and WW II. Construction did not begin until after a competing proposal to host the United Nations Headquarters on the island was lost in 1946. The Works Progress Administration connected the island to the mainland via a causeway at 12th Street in 1938. During this period Northerly Island was full of paths and walkways as well as a beach at 12th Street.
Although Mayor Richard J. Daley unofficially proposed converting Meigs Field into a lakefront park, the airport's lease was not set to expire until 1996. His son, Mayor Richard M. Daley, who had pledged to keep the airport open until 2006, reneged and controversially tore up the runways at Meigs Field in the middle of the night, in 2003, purportedly in the name of Homeland security. Plans followed to convert the area into green space and expand upon the neighboring Museum Campus.
In December 2010, the Chicago Parks District unveiled its framework plan for Northerly Island, to be completed over the next 20–30 years. The park will provide a variety of uses year-round with ecology and education central themes. A reef will be built, and the park will be designated into zones of "passive" and "active" relating to the amount of human activity.