Out of the Chrysalis:
The Birth of Millennium Park
by Francis A. Lackner, Jr.
Read before The Chicago Literary Club
October 25, 2004
© 2004 by Francis A. Lackner, Jr. in all media. All rights reserved.
As butterflies emerge from their chrysalis and take wing, fully formed and ready to delight the eye, so too at 5:00am on July 16, 2004, construction fences came down, cranes drove away, tarpaulins were removed, and a new destination was born: Chicago’s Millennium Park. Born from an abandoned rail yard, sired in political debate, media rhetoric and civic philanthropy, this once-ugly pork-barrel project has instantly become a gathering place, a focal point, for the entire downtown of Chicago. The flow of visitors was instantaneous and is now estimated at over a million in the three months since it opened. A Chicago Bears game a week ago featured color commentary on the Bean with photos of the Park. A Chicago Tribune article the same day noted the phenomenal increase in business directly attributable to the Park. CNN did a remote featuring the Park on Wednesday of this past week.
This is a park with a new direction. Nineteenth century parks brought nature to the city so that urban dwellers could have a taste of the beauty of the wild brought to their door, most famously explicated in New York’s Central Park. The twentieth century took the urban dweller to the country directly by means of the automobile. The national park system grew substantially in that century as a result, but many urban parks languished in neglect and disrepair. World’s fairs, as transitory parks, were destinations and places to gather and gawk at the wonders of technology and industry. In some cases they left civic monuments: one can think of the Space Needle in Seattle, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, or the CN Tower in Toronto. This, on the other hand, is a park in which the visitor can stroll, relax on benches or grass, see artwork, be entertained by interactive fountains and reflective sculpture, drink in the skyline of the city, or attend popular or serious performing arts events. The whole is easily accessible by public transportation, has handicapped access built in, and is immediately available to parking. The structure is permanent, but giving the feel of a fair, with crowds walking the midway promenades on their way between the various attractions. This Park interacts with its visitors and provides entertainment for them, as well as being an oasis from the City.
Like much of Chicago, Millennium Park owes its origins to the railroads, in this case the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad. The Illinois Central was chartered in 1851, and its first line was built from Galena to Cairo, Ill. A spur line to Chicago was built as part of the acquisition of a federal land grant. It eventually absorbed more than 100 smaller railroads across the Midwest and south to the Gulf of Mexico. In the mid-1850s it was given access to what was then the south side of Chicago’s business district by means of tracks built on trestles at the shoreline of Lake Michigan. The Chicago terminal and yards were built into the Lake in the area now bounded by Michigan Avenue, Columbus Drive, Randolph Drive, and Monroe Street. The charred debris of the Chicago Fire was pushed into the Lake around it, and the terminal was surrounded by what became Grant Park.
By the 1980s and early 1990s, the Illinois Central had essentially abandoned the terminal and yards. A portion was used for automobile parking, and a few commuter trains were operated by Metra to an underground station beneath the Prudential Building. It was a quietly festering eyesore, ignored by most of the city. Grant Park, the thin strip between Michigan Avenue and the tracks, was primarily the nightly resting spot for the area’s homeless.
In the mid-1990s, Mayor Richard Daley realized the value of the entire blighted area. With the Lake as a backdrop and Burnham Harbor in the foreground, this six-square block area is surrounded by the Art Institute, the then-Amoco-now-Aon Center, the Prudential Building, the Stone Container Building, the former Public Library, now Cultural Center, the University Club, expensive high-rise condominiums, Orchestra Hall, and a variety of prime commercial real estate. If properly developed, this area represented a very real opportunity to make a lasting statement in the heart of the city.
As with any opportunity to expand in the City That Works, there were challenges. The first was the land itself. It apparently belonged to the Illinois Central, even though unused and unsightly, dating to the deal made in the 1850s. The City’s legal department, however, dug through the musty records of City Hall, and found, to their surprise, that the land had been leased to the railroad, not sold, for a period of 99 years. The railroad was actually a holdover tenant on an expired and long-forgotten lease-hold, not the owner. After some negotiation, the Illinois Central agreed to release the air rights over the tracks that were in actual use and to drop any claim to the abandoned yards.
The Chicago Park District, owner of the strip of land fronting Michigan Avenue, was brought into the project to complete the land package, which now runs the full area between the high-rises of East Randolph Drive to the Art Institute at Monroe Street, and from Michigan Avenue to Columbus Drive.
The next challenge was to pay for the contemplated improvments. The first answer was to add another parking facility, since the downtown area is chronically short of affordable parking, and the improvements would draw yet more driving visitors. A bond issue was floated using the revenue from the parking garage, and the Park’s construction and upkeep provided for on a long-term basis.
The City’s vision expanded more rapidly than the parking revenue, the costs started to exceed the original budget, and a new means of achieving the financial goals had to be found. Taxes could not be increased for what was popularly seen as a political boondoggle, and the bond markets had already been tapped for as much as they would bear. The answer came in a unique partnership with a group of the city’s philanthropic elite in what came to be known as Millennium Park, Inc., led by retired Sara Lee CEO John Bryan. With Bryan as leader, foundations, corporations, and individuals opened their purses to the tune of some $175 million. Construction could continue.
The original plan for Grant Park, as envisioned by Daniel Burnham and taken to heart by Montgomery Ward, was for a green space in the center of the city, on the lakefront, free of buildings and open to the public. Montgomery Ward’s opposition to any construction in the Park has been well documented, and left the Art Institute as a legal anomaly and the sole architectural feature in the swath from Randolph Drive to the Museum Campus until the advent of Millennium Park.
The plans for Millennium Park clearly needed legal approval to proceed. The primary legality is conceptually simple to understand, yet structurally complex: the Grant Park ordinance beloved of Montgomery Ward requires that no buildings be constructed above the level of the Park. At Randolph Drive as it now stands, this is a complex structure of three street levels rising some fifty or more feet above the original level of the railroad yard being replaced. The simple answer was to raise the official grade level of the park from the rail yard to that of the top-most level of Randolph Drive, thereby allowing a six-level parking structure and the Harris Theater to be built below the grade of the park as defined by the original ordinance. The Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the official name of the bandshell designed by Frank Gehry just to the south of the Harris Theater, has its operational elements at or below the level of the adjoining Harris Theater. The huge decorative elements that form the stagehouse of the Pavilion were declared to be sculpture, and as such, not a building, but exempt from the ban on construction. Cloud Gate, the huge stainless steel sculpture commonly referred to as the ‘Bean’, is clearly a free-standing sculpture. The Fountain is a multi-media marvel, but with Buckingham Fountain as an example, it is still a fountain. The Park Grill, which fronts on Michigan Avenue behind the Ice Rink, is actually contained in the foundation for the Bean, and is below the grade of the Park at that point. Therefore, as curious as it may appear, Millennium Park actually contains no new buildings that rise above the level of the Park, and the sweep of the original vision for Grant Park can be said, legally, to have been preserved.
The interest of the corporate world, the investment of the private donors, the public nature of a park, the entertainment events envisioned, the need for ongoing maintenance of a complex structure, the interests of a privately operated non-profit theater, the opportunities presented by a music pavilion with a capacity of 11,000, and a major cultural force in the Grant Park Music Festival, all militated for a new method of governing the new park and providing for its future. So, while not yet completed either in legal framework or in actual operation, the City decided to house governance and operation in a Millennium Park Conservancy. This will be a separate legal entity from both the City and the Parks Department, composed of public minded citizens appointed by the Mayor. It will accept revenue from the various activities in the Park, it will rent out the Park for private events, and will be responsible for operating the Park as a whole. The Conservancy will hire an Executive Director who will be responsible for assembling the operational structure of the Park.
A second legal item of no interest to Park visitors, but of great interest to those operating the Park, is the underlying ownership of the grounds of the Park. The City reclaimed ownership of the railroad yards, and retained title to the land between the tracks to the west and Columbus Drive. The Chicago Park District owned, and retains title to, the land from Michigan Avenue to the tracks. As separate public bodies, with separate staffs and separate goals, there can be friction as the City and Park District are forced to collaborate in a common area. To further complicate ownership, the northwest corner of the old rail yard was leased to Music and Dance Theater Chicago, Inc., a charitable legal entity separate from the other two (and my employer of record), for 99 years at the nominal rate of a dollar per year. Between the two parking structures and beneath the park, the railroad still operates its passenger trains as before. Coordinating the activities, policies, staffs, and other elements of these various bodies, within Millennium Park Inc., can be challenging.
What are the constituents of the Park? The breadth of activities is quite surprising, ranging from a bike shop to a music pavilion, a theater for music and dance to a fountain that plays with its visitors, an ice rink, a neo-classical peristyle, solar-panel clad support structures, the Bean, a botanic garden, a bistro style restaurant, all supported above two parking garages that together can house some 4000 automobiles, and connected by a series of broad promenades and garden elements. Let us examine each in brief detail.
The Harris Theater was conceived well before Millennium Park, and was originally placed in another location in downtown Chicago. It came to the Park later in the planning process, but opened nine months before the Park as a whole. The need of mid-sized performing arts companies to have an affordable downtown location in which to display their wares prompted a group of philanthropists to form Music and Dance Theater Chicago in 1993. That group defined the mission of the project and engaged an architect to build it and a manager to see it through. Originally a steel and glass building set on the lot just north of the Sheraton Hotel in Streeterville, it was changed and moved over time to the present precast concrete structure below ground at the Park’s northern border.
Mid-sized performing arts companies are those that have escaped the formative process of itinerant performers and staff held together mostly by vision to a semi-permanent company that does not yet have a theater to call home. They have not yet reached the iconic status of a Chicago Symphony or a Lyric Opera or a Goodman or Steppenwolf Theater, but have the same production requirements when they perform. In the past, this has relegated them to performing in the suburbs or outer neighborhoods in churches and converted high school auditoriums, or to renting downtown commercial theaters at exorbitant rates. The Harris Theater was built, staffed and equipped to enable these performers to have a professional theater at an affordable rate in a downtown location that would enable them to find larger audiences and thus continue their growth.
What makes the Harris different? The closest comparison is not to an urban theater. While located in the Loop, the best analogy is to a university performing arts center. In such a center, there is ample space: flylofts, dressing rooms, backstage areas, loading docks, offices, and rehearsal areas. Equipment is made available without extra charges: lighting and sound equipment, stage drapery, orchestra shell, dance floor. The box office handles all the upcoming attractions; there is marketing for the whole complex, not just one production; parking is usually available nearby. Staff is available to answer the needs of the performers: technical personnel, box office staff, maintenance, security, and all the other needs of a production. It is to that analogy that the Harris should more accurately be compared. The Harris is also, incidentally, one of few high-rise theaters built underground, certainly the only one in Chicago.
The Harris was the first of the performing facilities in the Park to open to the public, bowing on November 8, 2003 to generally favorable reviews. The first season included everything from a female mariachi band to contemporary ‘new’ music, from jazz to classical symphonies. The dance provided included Gus Giordano, River North, Merce Cunningham, and Hubbard Street. In between came local favorites such as the Chicago Children’s Choir and the Apollo Chorus. Chicago Opera Theater provided three stunning new productions.
The Jay Pritzker Pavilion is the monumental bandshell that visually anchors the northern end of the Park. The original plans for the Park contained plans for a bandshell, but not to the scale currently seen. As planning for the Park progressed, Cindy Pritzker was approached regarding a contribution to the Park. Sensing an opportunity, she offered to foot the bill if the City would engage a world-class architect to build a more suitable structure. Frank Gehry, a prior Pritzker Architecture Award winner and friend of the Pritzker family, was thus engaged, and a new home for the Grant Park Music Festival designed.
The Pavilion stands 120 feet tall, housing a stage with space for a full symphony orchestra and a separate choral section above. There is fixed seating available for 4000 and a Great Lawn that seats 7000 more. The whole is enclosed by a latticework pipe framework, which serves a dual purpose of supporting an amplified speaker system and defining the lawn area. Standing on the stage of the Pritzker, it is remarkable how the ribbons and the latticework enclose the lawn area visually, while leaving the entire magnificent Chicago skyline as a backdrop. The effect is that of being enclosed within the entire City.
The Pritzker Pavilion and the Harris Theater are separate entities both structurally and legally, yet they are as Siamese twins. They share common dressing rooms, backstage spaces, loading dock, freight elevator, even artist’s entrance, performer’s lounges and elevators. The Harris, as part of the ground lease that grants use of the land, shares its calendar with the City in the summer months. Both are intertwined within the Park.
On the roof of the Harris Theater is The Terrace, a large open area covered with a semi-permanent tent that can be used for large parties and gatherings during at least three seasons of the year. It is the highest public point of the Park.
The Bicycle Shop is hidden away in the northeast corner of the park, and is, if not unique, certainly an unusual effort in a downtown setting. The shop encourages commuters to ride downtown, enjoy secure bicycle parking and repairs along with amenities such as showers and refreshments before going to work in nearby office buildings.
The Lurie Garden covers 2.5 acres immediately south of the Pavilion, and serves as the southeast entrance to the Park. It offers a ‘water feature’ with a hardwood walkway that winds through its center, separating a ‘light palate’ of perennial plants and a ‘dark palate’ shaded by cherry trees. The whole is surrounded by a fifteen foot high ‘shoulder’ hedge of evergreen shrubs.
The sinuous BP Bridge over Columbus Drive connects Millennium Park to the facilities of the Daley Plaza above the Monroe Street Garage. A fanciful echo of the ribbons of the Pritzker Pavilion, it has proven popular as a balcony for the Pavilion, as well as its original purpose of serving as a sound buffer for Columbus Drive while connecting the two parks.
The Crown Fountain occupies the southwest corner of the Park with two 50- foot towers, between which is a reflecting pool. The towers frame changing video images of the people of Chicago, while water cascades from the face of each tower. The effect is an ever-changing display that engages the imagination, while the pool invites reflection.
The Park Grill fills the pedestal structure for the Cloud Gate sculpture, facing the Ice Rink and Michigan Avenue. It operates year-round indoors and in the summer expands to fill the Ice Rink with an outdoor café. During the summer months it also features outdoor concerts, fashion shows and other light entertainment.
The Ice Rink was one of the first features to open to the public, in the winter of 2003-04, immediately adjacent to Michigan Avenue. It offers a 16,000 square foot rink, warming lobby, skate rental and lockers.
The Wrigley Peristyle is a replica of the peristyle that stood in the same location from 1917 to 1953. The original was built of concrete and was razed in the construction of the Grant Park North Garage. The replica is 80 per cent of the size of the original, due to weight limits on the parking structure beneath it, and is constructed of Indiana limestone. The open area in front of the peristyle is well-suited for temporary exhibits, this year housing ‘Family Album’ by photographer Uwe Ommer. The open area also provides an inviting area to sit, observe, or just amble.
Cloud Gate is the formal name of the sculpture popularly known as the Bean, by British artist Anish Kapoor. It is 66 feet long, 33 feet high, and weighs 110 tons. Inspired by a drop of liquid mercury, it is executed in stainless steel that reflects the sky and skyline of Chicago, or distorts in endless fascination the image of the visitors viewing it. Constructed originally in southern California, it was originally to be completed there, shipped by barge via the Panama Canal to the East Coast, thence down the St Lawrence Seaway to Burnham Harbor. Its final trip would then have been over Lake Shore Drive to its pedestal. That was found to be as impractical as it sounds, so the sculpture was left in pieces, shipped by truck to Chicago, and assembled in place.
The four Exelon Pavilions provide practical support for the Park, housing three entrances to the Millennium Park Garage, a visitor center, public restrooms, offices, and access for those with physical handicaps to the Terrace level.
The Millennium Park Garage is the financial base of much of the structure it supports. It has a capacity of 2200 cars, and on most days is substantially filled with office workers for the Blue Cross, Aon, and Prudential Buildings, among others. It is also used for remote parking for Soldier Field and McCormick Place, since it is located immediately adjacent to the McCormick Busway.
While it is well-hidden from public view, the transportation infrastructure underlying the Park is notable in its own right, incorporating the Grant Park North and Millennium Garages with a combined capacity of 4000 cars, a two-lane express busway that runs nonstop from the Harris Theater to Roosevelt Road, Soldier Field, McCormick Place, and the tracks and terminus for the Metra and South Shore trains.
After examining the range of activities and the variety of structures and the ways in which they interact, it is remarkable to what degree the various parts of the Park support each other and make a larger whole. For instance, the Harris Theater connects directly to the Millennium Park Garage, thereby increasing the comfort and convenience of theater patrons, and increasing sales both at the Theater and the Garage. The Harris Theater has dressing rooms and backstage facilities that connect directly to the Pritzker Pavilion, thereby reducing the cost to construct and operate both facilities. The City has a right to control the booking of the Harris Theater in the summer months of June, July, and August, but also assumes the cost of operating the Theater during that time; this gives the City an additional venue during the busy summer months at a time when the traditional theater activities are slow, but also helps support the operations of a non-profit cultural resource. The Exelon Pavilions contain the elevators for the Garage and the accessible bridge structure for the Terrace level on the Roof of the Harris Theater. The Lurie Garden serves as an additional entrance to the Pritzker Pavilion and to the southern end of the Garage. The Park Grill is housed in the pedestal structure for Cloud Gate, and serves as an additional entrance to the Grant Park North Garage. The Promenades and the exuberant flower gardens serve to connect all the elements, while covering restrooms, offices, storage and other facilities. Thus, each supporting the other, the parts are able to nest more closely together, and by sharing, make a greater whole possible.
Each of the elements of the Park was created by a separate artist or architect, so it is surprising that the whole is as pleasing to the eye and as functional as it has turned out. Tom Beeby, Frank Gehry, Anish Kapoor, all worked independently within the guidance of the Park and except as common walls and other elements dictated cooperation, but the completed whole has a remarkable balance and variety that could not have been achieved had the whole been designed by one architect or artist.
Botanic displays abound in the Park, but not as an imitation of nature as in Central Park or other 19th century parks. Rather, these are planned visual elements that draw the eye along promenades and decorate the Park.
Particular attention has been paid to the needs of the physically challenged. They are able to move around in an area that can require traversing up to five stories vertically, yet without obtrusive ramps or elevators. They have responded by being visible, frequent users of the Park.
While the structure of Millennium Park is now complete, there are substantial challenges yet to be overcome. The first is the issue of governance. The Conservancy envisioned by the Mayor and John Bryan is intellectually elegant, but will face issues in the application: a Board must be selected that is truly civic-minded and above the spoils that traditionally come with such positions in Chicago.
A management structure must be established that is capable of dealing with the specific and varied demands of the constituents and users of the Park, and strong enough to resist the political winds that whip through the Windy City. The choice of the first director of the Park will be key to its future.
Legal ownership divides the Park, and encouraging cooperation amongst those entities is another challenge: the City owns Millennium Park proper, that part east of the original rail right-of-way. Music and Dance Theater Chicago holds the ground-lease under the Harris Theater. The Chicago Park District owns the old Grant Park west of the railroad to Michigan Avenue. Disputes have already arisen, ranging from the mundane, such as trash removal and security, to more global issues of control of bookings and programming.
The finances of such a grand structure, both the physical and the cultural, cannot be ignored if it is to continue its success. The lavish contributions of a range of Chicago philanthropists funded the construction, but the continuing costs of operation of the Pritzker Pavilion, the upkeep of the Bean, of the Crown Fountain, will be substantial. Ann Lurie endowed the Lurie Garden well in her original gift; the Harris Theater is independent, although not wealthy, in its own right. Rental of parts of the Park for private events will help. Proceeds of the Garage may also help, once the construction bonds are paid off. The Conservancy will, however, have to identify a continuing source of operating funds as part of its responsibilities, and continuing fundraising may well not be so easy once the first flush of success has worn off.
Millennium Park is home to a wide range of specific and potential users, sponsors, and visitors, with a staggering array of public services in the background. Operating a cohesive whole within the demands of such disparate groups will test the vision for the Park. Whether to have a cohesive public programming structure, or to allow each constituent to program as they see fit, is one question. The Harris Theater is fast becoming a haven for music and dance events in the city. The Grant Park Music Festival, with its classical summer fare, has laid claim to the Pritzker Pavilion, but may have to share that space with other programs devised by the Department of Cultural Affairs. The Park Grill, controlled by the Park District, is actively soliciting evening entertainment for the Ice Rink in the summer. The fate of the Petrillo Bandshell is in question, and many of the fests that dot the summer months in downtown Chicago might well aspire to the Pritzker stage. Beyond that are a variety of art exhibits that can well be housed on the Wrigley Peristyle corner or the Chase Promenades. Several private and corporate events have already been staged, including one lavish birthday bash: can others be far behind? The Terrace is an expansive location for private dinners and functions in three seasons of the year; the stage of the Pritzker is also proving popular. Several events have used two, three or more of the elements of the Park. There are questions of access and support, public image and artistic direction. Simply imposing the will of a governing group is not the answer. The Park will flourish with the diversity brought by a range of styles, cultures, and tastes, as has the city it serves. The Park is not merely a grass and trees construction that can be supported by cleaning up the rubbish and mowing the grass. It is a living, growing cultural institution on a grand scale, still in its infancy. It will want support and nurture as it matures.
Millennium Park is set in the form of a nineteenth century urban park, but has the attractions of a World’s Fair in clustering sculpture and art, fountains, theater and concert shell, restaurants, an ice rink, and gardens, all in a permanent setting. By clustering the attractions in a walkable space, the whole becomes a destination unto itself, an entertainment venue, rather than a collection of institutions each with a separate audience. The open nature of the park, operating without an entrance fee, allows a variety of people to mingle and gather informally. By clustering, the common support functions necessary to the operation of such an endeavor can be shared, reducing the cost to build and operate them and expanding the opportunities for all. By opening the whole as a park, free to all, the Park has generated a new ethos for its visitors.
Naming this creation Millennium Park appeared rather grandiose at first, and then even ludicrous as the cost over-runs and construction delays mounted ever higher. However, now that it is open, the name seems more apt. The interplay of the disparate elements, the ability of the public to flow casually between attractions, the compact majesty of the whole, speaks to a larger vision. Perhaps this is indeed a Park for the next Millennium.
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Related websites for those reading this paper on the Internet:
The “official” website of Millennium Park: http://egov.cityofchicago.org/city/webportal/portalEntityHomeAction.do?entityName=Millennium%2BPark&entityNameEnumValue=137 .
The Harris Theater website, listing upcoming attractions:
 Chicago Tribune, October 17, 2004, Section 5, page 1, “Park Central to Avenue’s Growth Spurt.”
 A map of the Park may be found on the Internet at http://egov.cityofchicago.org/webportal/COCWebPortal/COC_EDITORIAL/millenniumparkwebmap_1.pdf. The website for the Park, which includes schedules of public events, may be found at http://egov.cityofchicago.org/city/webportal/portalEntityHomeAction.do?entityName=Millennium%2BPark&entityNameEnumValue=137 .