Daniel Burnham, the guy who put together the 1892 World’s Fair that eventually would debut the Ferris Wheel as its prime attraction, used to call Chicago “The Paris of the Prairie,” even going so far as to compare the Chicago River to the Seine.
In order to keep big boats and barges off of that beloved river, Burnham and some contemporaries put together “The Plan of Chicago” in the early 1900s, the first ever comprehensive plan for controlled growth in an American city, and the addition of five piers to the shores of Lake Michigan were included in that original plan.
Obviously only one of those piers ever got built, but Navy Pier has over the years proven to be worth the trouble, as it now serves as the #1 tourist and leisure destination not only in Chicago but in the entire Midwest. Its history is as rich as that of any building in the city, and it all started in 1916, when the original structure was finally completed by an architect named Charles Sumner Frost.
In that era there was no air conditioning, so patrons would make their way to the end of what was then known as Municipal Pier to take in the cool air of Lake Michigan, dance and enjoy some refreshing libations. At that point it was both a shipping dock and an entertainment venue, but already it was one of the most revered spots in all of Chicago.
The pier was commandeered by the U.S. Navy during World War II to serve as a training center for aircraft pilots, including former president George H.W. Bush, and after that the University of Illinois set up a remote campus there, catering mostly to veterans looking to complete two-year degrees.
By 1960, the structure sat mostly empty and was criminally underused for almost three decades. The modern re-purposing of Navy Pier got underway in 1989 when the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority took over the building and initiated a $200 million renovation that more or less transformed it into the tourist spot we know today.
When Navy Pier re-opened in 1994, it introduced a lot of the experiences that now are so popular, including the Shakespeare Theater, the Rooftop Terrace, the Driehaus Gallery of Stained Glass, the Chicago Children’s Museum and of course a brand new Ferris Wheel to pay tribute to the original that helped put modern Chicago on the map.
Now, there’s an IMAX theater, loads of shops and plenty of great restaurants scattered all over the pier, while many catered parties and weddings are held there, as well. There also are sight-seeing cruises available from companies like Seadog Ventures, Shoreline Sightseeing and Water Taxi, as are entertainment and dinner cruises available on Navy Pier’s cruise chips: the Spirit of Chicago, The Odyssey II and the Mystic Blue.
Best of all, Navy Pier is in the midst of a reinvention that will keep the best of the past and mix in many exciting new elements, which should help Navy Pier continue to serve as a huge draw for patrons 100 years after its construction. Today, Chicago really has transformed into the “Paris of the Prairie” Daniel Burnham envisioned, and Navy Pier has had plenty to do with that.