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About Navy Pier - History

Historic Navy Pier® is Chicago's lakefront playground and the Midwest's premier leisure destination, attracting more than 8.9 million visitors in 2013.

Navy Pier has enjoyed a remarkable evolution. Originally designed for shipping and recreational purposes, the facility has evolved into a premiere entertainment center. It also provides state-of-the-art meeting space perfectly suited for small-to-medium sized trade shows. Come experience all that Navy Pier has to offer year-round!

Detailing its successful rebirth as one of Chicago's most important historical landmarks, the following timeline illustrates the challenges and changes faced by Navy Pier over the years.

Daniel Burnham creates the "Master Plan of Chicago" which originally envisioned five piers. Eventually, only one 1.5 mile long recreational pier with freight and passenger ship docking facilities was commissioned to be built near the mouth of the Chicago River.

Construction begins under the direction of the nationally known architect Charles Sumner Frost. Completed in two years, construction of the Pier costs $4.5 million.

Municipal Pier opens to the public. It is the only pier to combine the business of shipping with the pleasure of public entertainment.

When the U.S. enters World War I, the Pier houses several regiments of soldiers, Red Cross and Home Defense units as well as a barracks for recruits.

1918 - 1921
The Pier boasts its own streetcar line, theater, restaurants and an emergency hospital.

1921- 1922
The Pier enters its "golden age" of recreational and cultural activity as Chicago Mayor William H. Thompson's "Pageants of Progress" draw nearly a million visitors during 15 days of events.

The Chicago Federation of Labor establishes its pioneer radio station and transmission for WCFL, "the voice of labor," in the north tower.

Municipal Pier is officially renamed Navy Pier as a tribute to Navy personnel who served during World War I.

The Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression, as well as the increased use of automobiles resulted in the decline of freight and passenger ship activity. During the 1930's, the Pier housed various New Deal agencies.

1930 - 1940
Navy Pier's freight and passenger traffic declines, though cultural and recreational use continues despite the onset of the Great Depression.

Century of Progress Exposition (World's Fair) on the lakefront draws 1,500 conventions and 1.5 million visitors.

Pilot training orientation commenced at Navy Pier. Eventually, 15,000 pilots were qualified for military service, including a young airman named George H.W. Bush, the future President of the United States. As many as 200 WWII planes still rest at the bottom of Lake Michigan as a result of accidents during training.

The Navy operated various training programs at Navy Pier throughout the war. Those enrolled often became aviation machinist's mate, metal smiths or diesel engine technicians. By the time training ceased in July 1946, some sixty thousand people - including sailors from Great Britain, Canada, Brazil and Peru- were trained at Navy Pier.

The Navy moves out and the University of Illinois takes up residence, transforming the facility into a two-year undergraduate branch campus that remains in existence until 1965. The Navy's main mess hall becomes a giant library considered "the largest reading room" in Illinois.

1950 - 1960
The Pier handles 12-16 huge trade shows/exhibits and social events annually. Until McCormick Place opens in 1960, all trade shows in Chicago are held either on Navy Pier or at the Union Stockyards Amphitheater.

The Pier was widened by 100 feet with the construction of the South Dock. At its peak in 1964, Navy Pier handled 250 overseas vessels annually and was one of the greatest inland ports in the world.

The city's first Holiday Folk Fest is held at the Pier, featuring food and products from countries represented by Chicago's many ethnic groups.

The University of Illinois moves from Navy Pier to its new Circle Campus, just west of the city.

Fire destroyed the original McCormick Place. Navy Pier helped keep many conventions and trade shows in Chicago for the four years it took to rebuild McCormick Place.

1971 - 1975
After McCormick Place re-opened, Navy Pier falls into disuse.

The spectacular Grand Ballroom undergoes a renovation as part of the city's observance of the country's Bicentennial Celebration.

City Hall designated Navy Pier as a Chicago Landmark.

1978 - 1982
Navy Pier hosts ChicagoFest, drawing millions of visitors with music, food and entertainment.

The Illinois General Assembly created the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) and designated it to manage and operate both McCormick Place and Navy Pier. The Authority moved swiftly to redesign Navy Pier into one of the country's most unique exposition and recreation facilities.

As part of the $150 million Navy Pier redevelopment project, improvements are made to nearly every aspect of the Pier. The 1,500-seat outdoor Skyline Stage opens to the public.

July 12, 1995
The newly renovated Navy Pier re-opened, featuring a mix of year-round entertainment, shops, restaurants, attractions and exhibition facilities.

Navy Pier celebrates its first anniversary season.

Navy Pier officials and the Shakespeare Repertory Theater announce plans to build Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier. Additionally, construction is completed on a new six-story parking garage, bringing the number of on-site parking spots to 1,740. Navy Pier draws record attendance with an estimated seven million visitors between July 1996 and June 1997.

Navy Pier hosts the City of Chicago's first-ever Tall Ships festival.

Navy Pier opens its newest attraction, Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Modeled after London's Swan Theatre, it features an intimate 525-seat courtyard-style theater with unequaled views of the lakefront, an English-style pub, a studio theater, a bookstore, a Teacher's Resource Center and an English Garden.

The Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows debuts at Navy Pier. It is the first museum in the United States dedicated solely to stained glass windows. This permanent display of 150 stained glass windows is housed in an 800-ft.-long series of galleries along the lower level terraces of Festival Hall, showcased both secular and religious windows divided by artistic theme into four categories: Victorian, Prairie, Modern and Contemporary.

Navy Pier celebrated the 10th anniversary of its re-opening, with a special ceremony in which city and state leaders, VIP guests and MPEA officials thank the estimated 76 million guests who have visited the site during the past decade. The tribute ceremony culminated with performances by the renowned South Shore Drill Team, a fly-over by the Lima Lima Air Team and the introduction of a new Navy Pier mascot, named Patch the Pirate Dog.

•  Navy Pier hosts Cirque Shanghai, a crowd-pleasing performance of Chinese acrobats and contortionists that draws tens of thousands of visitors to the Pepsi Skyline Stage.
•  Navy Pier again plays host to the popular Tall Ships Chicago 2006 event. Hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans board majestic maritime sailing vessels docked at Navy Pier and along the Chicago River.

•  Navy Pier featured in Crain's Chicago Business as the #1 Tourist attraction in Chicago.
•  Navy Pier named in Midwest Living Magazine as the #1 location in Illinois to take an out-of-town guest.
•  In September, the Navy Pier Ferris wheel, presented by McDonald's® reached a significant milestone: its 10 millionth rider. Ronald McDonald and Patch the Pirate Dog, Navy Pier's mascot, were on hand to award an array of prizes to the lucky rider.

•  Navy Pier featured in the March/April Issue of West Suburban Living as Chicago Area's #1 Must-Go Place to take out-of-town guests.
•  Navy Pier honored by Illinois Meetings & Events Magazine with the "Best Of" Award in the category of Chicago Attractions.
•  In July, Navy Pier hosts the Hollywood-style Red Carpet move premiere of "The Dark Knight". Scenes from the movie were filmed at Navy Pier. Navy Pier IMAX Theater hosts 75+ hours of continuous screenings during the film's opening weekend.
•  Navy Pier's Chicago Shakespeare Theater wins the 2008 Tony Award for Best Regional Theater in the country.

Three major tenants joined the Navy Pier family, providing exciting new dining options for our customers – Harry Caray's Tavern at Navy Pier, Auntie Anne's Pretzels, and Jamba Juice.

•  Navy Pier is the exclusive host for Pepsi® Tall Ships Chicago 2010. This maritime festival features the largest gathering of tall ships ever at Navy Pier and attracts 850,000 attendees, more than any event in Navy Pier history.
•  Navy Pier's Winter WonderFest, one of Chicago's most popular holiday festivals, marks its 10th anniversary.
•  MPEA commissioned a study by Urban Land Institute (ULI) – a nationally-respected, 501© (3) non-profit research and education organization – and instructed its panel of experts to re-imagine Navy Pier's future based upon realistic assumptions about the availability of public and private capital. On November 10, 2010, ULI released its report, which recommended a balance between public uses of Navy Pier, with commercial and cultural attractions, in order to maintain its purpose as "the People's Pier."
•  On December 31, 2010, MPEA Trustee recommended a new governance structure to the Governor and Illinois General Assembly, as required by MPEA reform legislation enacted last spring. The recommendation called for Navy Pier to be leased to a newly formed not-for-profit corporation – Navy Pier Inc. – that would separately govern and manage the Pier. Thirteen Chicago civic leaders would serve on the corporation's first board of directors

•  MPEA enters into a long-term lease with Navy Pier, Inc. (NPI), the not-for-profit established to maintain Navy Pier as a historic public landmark and oversee its redevelopment.
•  NPI unveils The Centennial Vision, a new redevelopment framework that reimagines Navy Pier as a world-class attraction with dramatic, engaging public spaces and expanded entertainment, dining and retail options to draw more year-round and adult visitors. As part of The Centennial Vision, NPI announces that it will launch an international search for design teams to submit creative ideas for the Pier’s public areas or “Pierscape.”
•  The free public art exhibition and the largest outdoor installation of its kind in the country, Navy Pier Walk returns to Navy Pier featuring sculptures of various sizes, designs and materials.

•  Over two days the five “Pierscape” design team finalists present their visions for a reimagined Navy Pier in public presentations at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The finalists’ complete design proposals were on display in public exhibition at Chicago Architecture Foundation from February through mid-May. In March, the NPI Board announces that acclaimed landscape architecture and urban design firm James Corner Field Operations (JCFO) has been selected to reimagine Navy Pier’s public spaces.
•  Chicago Children’s Museum extends its stay at Navy Pier and signs a 90-year lease agreement.
•  Outdoor art exhibition Navy Pier Walk is renamed BIGart at Navy Pier and returns in partnership with the Gagosian gallery to display a signature Roy Lichtenstein sculpture Brushstroke Group as well as Monochrome II Chicago, an installation incorporating aluminum boats and wire cable to form a bursting web-like structure, by American sculptor and artist in residence Nancy Rubins.

•  NPI unveils details of the design for redevelopment of a bolder, greener, more contemporary Pier.
•  Chicagoan and Navy Pier’s own Pier Park operations manager, Clinton Shepherd, becomes GUINESS WORLD RECORDS® holder for the longest marathon on a fairground or theme park attraction by riding the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel for 48 hours 8 minutes 25 seconds with no sleep on May 17 – 19.
•  Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Navy Pier and MPEA announce Elevate Chicago, a $1.1 billion tourism and tradeshow infrastructure redevelopment program that will create thousands of new jobs and infuse hundreds of millions of dollars in local economic growth.
•  Madison Evans Construction Group LLC, a joint venture of two local firms, was chosen to manage Phase I of the construction of Pierscape and The Centennial Vision.

Click here to download a .pdf of this History of Navy Pier

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