Located on Lake Michigan, just East of Chicago’s Downtown, Navy Pier has been a Chicago landmark since it first opened in 1916. Originally designed as both a shipping and recreational facility, the Pier also served as a military training site during two world wars, a venue for concerts and exhibitions, and the temporary home for a once-fledgling University of Illinois’ Chicago campus.
As the Pier fell into disuse during much of the 1970s and 1980s, the State of Illinois and Chicago embarked on a joint plan whereby, in 1989, ownership of the Pier was transferred to the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the same body which oversees Chicago’s McCormick Place. The Authority moved swiftly to redesign Navy Pier into one of the country’s most unique recreation and exposition facilities.
Navy Pier now showcases a unique collection of restaurants and shops in addition to unequaled recreational and exhibition facilities — in a setting like no other.
The “new” Pier was the product of an architectural team comprised of VOA Associates (Chicago, Illinois) and Benjamin Thompson Associates (Cambridge, Massachusetts). The resulting design has captured the excitement and ambiance of other public waterfront attractions such as Baltimore’s Inner Harbor Development, Vancouver’s Trade & Convention Centre and New York’s South Street Seaport. The Pier also fills an important void by accommodating smaller – and medium-sized shows and conferences, many of which may have outgrown Chicago’s hotels or are too small to utilize the McCormick Place complex.
Approaching the new Navy Pier, visitors encounter the following attractions and buildings (from west to east):
Located just west of the Pier, the 19-acre “Gateway Park” has been developed to enhance the city’s lakefront. It provides visitors both an aesthetic and dramatic entrance to the Pier, as well as a convenient vehicle and pedestrian separation. A spectacular state-of-the-art fountain located in Gateway Park just west of the Pier’s entrance provides interactive fun with computerized jet streams of varying heights and designs.
To both accommodate the Pier’s new buildings and provide additional vehicular access, a 50-foot-wide North Dock was built along the entire length of the Pier (some 3,000 feet). It has been designed to provide three on-Pier traffic lanes to facilitate the flow of taxis, charter buses, private autos and delivery vehicles.
Anchored by the 50,000-square-foot Chicago Children’s Museum and Navy Pier’s 440- seat large-screen IMAX Theater, the Family Pavilion also is home to 40,000 square feet of exciting restaurants and retail shops. Just beyond, visitors discover the Crystal Gardens, a 32,000-square-foot indoor botanical park, which provides a year-round center for family activity and special receptions.
Located just east of Navy Pier’s Family Pavilion is the South Arcade. The South Arcade is home to numerous shops, restaurants, and attractions, including Time Escape, Amazing Chicago, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
An enclosed parking garage for 1,040 autos stretches two-thirds of the Pier’s length, allowing convenient visitor access to the buildings located directly above. An additional parking structure which accommodates 700 additional vehicles is also available. In addition, there are two on-Pier drop-off points for taxis and buses. The Pier also is served by double-decker tour buses and four public transit (bus) lines.
Just east of the Family Pavilion is an outdoor landscaped area which features attractions such as a permanent 150-foot-high Ferris wheel, sponsored by McDonald’s, a musical carousel, an old-fashioned swing ride and an 18-hole miniature golf course. Navy Pier Park also includes the 1,500-seat Skyline Stage outdoor performance pavilion.
Skyline Stage, which opened in May 1994, is the only performance pavilion built directly on Chicago’s lakefront. A vaulted-roof structure, visible for miles along the lakeshore, offers a unique atmosphere and spectacular views. The 1,500-seat theater showcases local and national artists in an intimate setting while providing a full range audio system, special effect capabilities and dramatic theatrical lighting. From May to September, Skyline Stage features musical performances ranging from classical to pop, blues and jazz to eclectic, rock and reggae, as well as dance, theater, comedy and film.
Dock Street, which runs the length of the Pier’s South Dock, is reserved for pedestrians, bicyclists and joggers. In season, four performance areas feature entertainment ranging from jugglers, mimes and stilt walkers to comedians, singers and musicians. Chicago’s dinner cruise ships continue to operate from Dock Street. And, on select summer evenings, fireworks entertain the Pier’s evening visitors.
Further east, Festival Hall has been designed to serve both exposition and special event needs. With more than 170,000 square feet of exhibit space, it is divisible into two areas of 56,700 and 113,400 square feet, respectively. This facility takes maximum advantage of the Pier’s unique lakefront setting, hosting exhibitions, trade shows, scientific conferences, receptions, art shows, and meeting of all kinds. It features ceiling heights of up to 60 feet (30 feet minimum), and provides a full range of electrical, telecommunications, and other needs.
The Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows is a permanent display of 150 stained glass windows housed in an 800-ft.-long series of galleries along the lower level terraces of Festival Hall. Open since February 2000, it is the first museum in the United States dedicated solely to stained glass windows. It showcases both secular and religious windows and is divided by artistic theme into four categories: Victorian, Prairie, Modern and Contemporary.
Perfect for seminars and conferences, Festival Hall includes 36 meeting rooms, totaling more than 48,000 square feet. Many of these are located on a mezzanine overlooking the exhibition floor (with convenient escalator, elevator and stairway access), as well as on the exhibition level itself. The ratio of meeting space to exhibition space provides tremendous flexibility for any show or event.
In addition to these new structures, the Pier’s historic East End buildings have been renovated for meeting and conference use. For example, the Terminal Building’s two large meeting rooms supplement those in the adjacent Festival Hall. Two other historic structures, the 18,000-square-foot Shelter Building and the 12,000-square-foot Recreation Building, provide excellent space for breakouts and receptions. And, the magnificent Grand Ballroom, with its 80-foot domed ceiling, continues to serve banquet. performance and special exhibit needs as it has since the Pier first opened in 1916.
At the eastern-most edge of the 3,000-foot Pier is the historic East End. Offering the city’s best view of the spectacular skyline and lakefront, the East End also is the perfect place for lunch or a sunset stroll. Period light fixtures, a myriad of flags, picnic benches and wide pedestrian promenades mirror the Pier of the past.