10 Years of Millennium Park History
by dawn reiss
Ten years after its unveiling, Millennium Park isn’t just a success—it has proven to be a visionary work that has changed the way the world sees Chicago.
Covering nearly 25 acres, Millennium Park trails only Navy Pier as Chicago’s most visited tourist attraction.
It’s an unseasonably warm spring day at Millennium Park. At the Crown Fountain, a group of boisterous teenage boys pick up one of their own by all four limbs and carry him into the shallow water. Backlit by one of the fountain’s massive glowing towers, the boy surfs on his backside, letting out a gleeful cry, as the group races to the opposite side. Nearby, couples lounge in the grass at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, while families and individuals cluster on a wooden boardwalk, some with their bare feet in a creek in the Lurie Garden. Even as a storm approaches, a security guard has a hard time convincing people to leave as they take selfies in front of the Bean.
It’s hard to remember what life was like before Millennium Park. Since its opening on July 16, 2004, it has become one of the city’s iconic destinations and its second-most-visited tourist spot after Navy Pier. (It’s also easy to forget that Millennium Park is a rooftop garden built over an underground parking garage.) Despite its 24.5 acres, this urban oasis has an undeniable intimacy, each of its manageable areas like a cozy room within an expansive house. A decade into the life of this communal space of greenery and public art, we take a look at 10 moments that shaped the park’s development—and sealed its place in the hearts of Chicagoans and visitors alike.
1. AN ICON IS BORN
Years in the making, Millennium Park begins life as Daley’s dream.
Although the idea for a park over the Illinois Central Railroad tracks, east of Michigan Avenue in Grant Park, had been batted around since 1977, it was Mayor Richard M. Daley who was inspired in 1997 to make it happen. He had grown tired of looking out his dentist’s Michigan Avenue office window at 900 parked cars and a railroad station, according to Ed Uhlir, executive director of the nonprofit Millennium Park Foundation. “He said, ‘Let’s cover it with a park,’” says Uhlir, the park’s former project design director and master planner, who frequently used the story in his many public presentations.
After convincing the Illinois Central Railroad to donate its property rights back to the city, Daley’s team geared up for a public campaign. Daley tapped former Sara Lee CEO John Bryan to lead the effort to raise funds from the private sector, with an initial design mapped out by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Bryan knew the park needed an appealing name, so he did what any “good consumer marketing person would do,” he says, and approached advertising giant Leo Burnett for ideas. “The name I liked was Millennium Park,” says Bryan. “‘Millennium’ was not a word in the people’s vocabulary so much in 1998, but it does mark a moment of time that is pretty extraordinary. And ‘park’ is just one of those good, hard, crisp words, like ‘Coca-Cola’ or ‘Kodak.’”
Although Leo Burnett repeatedly suggested the name “Garden of the Arts,” Bryan nixed it. “I said, ‘Forget it. I’m not going to meet anybody in the Garden of the Arts. We’re going to name it Millennium Park.’”
Cloud Gate has won accolades from art critics, tourists—and the American Welding Society.
2. A DROP OF MERCURY
Despite enormous costs and considerable delays, Cloud Gate proves to be well worth the hassle.
Thanks to a Chicago Tribune headline, it is now known simply as “the Bean.” But for a long time the iconic sculpture inspired by a drop of mercury—officially titled Cloud Gate—was nameless. Although Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor first presented his idea in March 1999, no one could have predicted how long it would take to complete this 110-ton sculpture. Kapoor wanted his work to be interactive and engaging. “This was a new place from which to look at Chicago,” he says. “I wanted to make something that would engage both the city and the sky.” When the sculpture finally arrived in April 2004, it was just three months before the park’s opening. The cost of creating and transporting Cloud Gate had skyrocketed from $6 million to $23 million, paid with private funds. Uhlir says it “looked like Frankenstein’s brain,” with 168 stainless steel plates stitched together with tack welds. Several months after the park opened to the public, the sculpture was tented so it could be polished, and it was officially completed two years later. These days, Kapoor jokes, does it really matter how late it was finished? “I don’t think so,” he says. “When they commissioned me, they said, ‘We want you to make something that will last a thousand years.’ Well, let’s hope so. Ten is a very small fraction.”
The graceful curves of Jay Pritzker Pavilion were inspired by Vermeer’s Woman with a Water Jug.
3. A MODERN MOVEMENT
Chicago power player Cindy Pritzker reshapes the park’s design by pushing for a contemporary aesthetic.
Cindy Pritzker suggests that initial design concepts for the Jay Pritzker Pavilion were “in the wrong millennium”—like a band shell with an arch, gaslight lamp posts, and static art on either side. “Why would we build in the past when we’re looking to the future?” says Pritzker, who with her husband, the late Jay Pritzker (who ran the Hyatt Hotel chain and Marmon Group), and the rest of her family donated $15 million to the cause—a quarter of the pavilion’s final $60 million price tag.
Thanks to Aaron Montgomery Ward’s 19th-century “open, clear, and free” land decree, only works of art could be placed in the park, not permanent structures—or else they had to be built underground, like the Harris Theater. Which is why Pritzker offered an alternate suggestion: Get architect Frank Gehry so the “pavilion would be the art.”
For many, this was the turning point toward a more modern movement in Millennium Park. “In an instant it just kind of changed for me,” says Donna LaPietra, chairwoman of the Millennium Park Foundation, which has raised private-sector funds for the park. “Cindy was the next step that really changed the framing of the park.”
Snaking 925 feet, Frank Gehry’s BP Pedestrian Bridge has just a five percent slope, making it accessible to the physically disabled.
4. GETTING FRANK
Convincing Frank Gehry to sign on opens the door for other big-name contemporary artists and architects to join the massive project.
Toronto native Frank Gehry has long been a fan of the Windy City. “When I was a lucky young kid, my father used to bring me to Chicago to go to Mills Novelty Company, because he used to buy pinball machines and place them in restaurants in Canada,” says Gehry, referring to the Chicago-based company that was once the leading manufacturer of coin-operated machines. “I’ve loved Chicago from the beginning, and I still do.”
But it took Gehry a while before he agreed to work on the Millennium Park project. In the summer of 1998, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Adrian Smith initially approached Gehry “to do the façade of the band shell that was mostly going to be underground,” the architect says. “He thought I could do some fish sculptures on either side. So I turned that down.”
Then in December, Uhlir and James Feldstein, Bryan’s chief fundraiser, took a covert trip to Santa Monica, California, to try to persuade Gehry to reconsider. “I thought it was the same project with the decorations on the side, and I said no,” recalls Gehry. “Then they said I could pretty much do what I wanted to do.”
While looking through the perspective drawings, Gehry noticed a bridge, says Uhlir. The architect mentioned that he had submitted a bridge design for the Thames but had lost out to Norman Foster. “So I told Frank, ‘If you do the pavilion, we’ll throw in the bridge,’” Uhlir says. Then Gehry asked who was funding the project. “When they said Cindy Pritzker, I said, ‘Oh that’s different. Why didn’t you tell me that?’” recalls Gehry, who won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1989. “When I realized it was Cindy who wanted me to do it, that was it.”
Having Gehry on board made it easier to attract other internationally renowned artists. “I think getting Frank raised the bar on the whole park,” says Pritzker. “I don’t think we would have had the Bean, nor would we have that wonderful fountain. It just got us the best of the best.”
5. MONEY MATTERS
A public-private partnership expands the possibilities for Millennium Park.
Thanks to the fundraising efforts of John Bryan, the people behind Millennium Park were able to think bigger. “It’s hard to say no to John,” says Steve Crown, general partner of the privately held Henry Crown and Company, whose family donated $10 million for the Crown Fountain. “He may be one of the greatest fundraisers in the history of Chicago.” Unlike a university or a cultural institution with a large donor base, Millennium Park had nothing, says Bryan. “We wanted the best the world had to offer. That meant going to the private sector.”
While others had floated park ideas previously, it was the strong political backing of Daley that quieted Millennium Park’s naysayers. “We had a mayor who was strong enough to protect the private sector from the bureaucrats and City Hall,” Bryan says. “When Mayor Bloomberg came to see our park, he said, ‘You could never do it in New York because they just wouldn’t let it be done.’”
As the scope of the project grew—from 16.5 acres to 24.5 acres— the Millennium Park Foundation pushed for more funding. By May 2004, less than 10 years after it began, the foundation had raised $143 million, and by June 2005 it had raised $173.5 million, according to Timothy Gilfoyle, author of Millennium Park: Creating a Chicago Landmark. Says Gilfoyle, “It was the perfect storm of positive events that allowed it to be built.”
Although its final construction budget more than tripled, today most people think building Millennium Park was one of Chicago’s greatest feats. “This is one of the true successes of a private-public partnership,” says Crown. “You don’t see that very often.”
A replica of Grant Park’s original semicircle of Doric-style columns, Wrigley Square’s Millennium Monument pays homage to the park’s individual and corporate benefactors.
6. TWIN GARGOYLES
The Crown Fountain turns Jaume Plensa’s dream of walking on water into a reality.
Inspired by the gargoyles he saw at European cathedrals, Spanish artist Jaume Plensa designed the Crown Fountain to feature water spilling down glass blocks and spurting from the mouths of faces into a reflecting pool that would skim the top of one’s shoes. “My dream was to walk on the water and offer that dream to others,” says Plensa.
To create it took 18,000 glass bricks to build two 50-foot honeycomb-like towers, and a computer hidden below to control the 1,000 alternating faces on the towers’ screens. “When I was developing the project, many people were concerned about using technology in the public space,” says Plensa. “‘Nobody will understand; it’s too intellectual.’”
The night before it opened, Plensa gave the fountain a test. “Kids came over and started to enjoy it without any prejudice,” he says. “It was not intellectual; it was just a place for freedom. They interacted completely, without any problem with my faces and jets of water. It was complete magic.”
The Crown Fountain’s towers project the digitized faces of 960 Chicagoans, submitted by school, church, and community groups.
7. A PARTY IN THE PARK
Millennium Park’s greatest triumph may be its interactivity.
The source of Millennium Park’s magnetic appeal can be hard to pinpoint. Is it the outdoor concerts with amazing surround sound? Is it seeing fun-house reflections in the Bean or water gushing down a huge tower? In fact, it’s all of that and more— the essence of the park is a sense of playful culture, a trait shared by Cloud Gate, the Crown Fountain, and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. “If you think about the three pieces, they kind of work together,” says Gehry. “It’s interesting that none of us talked to each other while we were designing.”
Gehry calls the ensemble a “party in the park,” starting with the band shell. “When you put music in,” he explains, “it takes it to the next level. Then to have Anish’s sculpture next to it, which reflects the city and the people.... Then there’s Plensa with these gargoyles, which is a brilliant, brilliant idea—so personally engaging you can’t stop looking at it. And then the fountain became a party, with the kids playing in the fountain and in the water. Everything is complementary, and that rarely happens. I don’t know any other place that contemporary where those three things come together like that.”
8. AN URBAN OASIS
The Lurie Garden subtly references Chicago’s historic past
Tucked away in the park’s southeast corner, the Lurie Garden is a five-acre urban oasis where park-raised bees busily pollinate clusters of purple and magenta flowers and prairie plants—more than 240 perennial species in all. It’s also become a favorite destination for Chicagoans seeking respite from the city. As on the wooden docks of Lake Michigan, on a quiet day visitors can hear the water lapping beneath the boardwalk that lines the garden.
Conceptually, the 15-foot hedge around the garden is a nod to Chicago’s moniker “The City of Big Shoulders,” says Kathryn Gustafson, part of the landscape architecture team of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, which worked on the garden with plant specialist Piet Oudolf and lighting designer Robert Israel. In researching Chicago’s history, she found abundant references to those shoulders. “Mink trappers would be in canoes all day rowing, and when they got out of their canoes they had spindly little legs and big shoulders,” Gustafson says with a laugh. “There’s also the big shoulders of the steel industry and the fact that everything moves through Chicago…. So we wanted the hedge to feel like shoulders. Since Frank Gehry’s fantastic bandstand looks like an Indian headdress, we figured we’d give it a pair of shoulders to sit on.”
9. A BRIDGE TO SOMEWHERE
Building on Millennium Park’s success, Grant Park’s evolution continues with Maggie Daley Park.
For years, Chicagoans have joked about the snaky silver BP Bridge in Millennium Park being a “bridge to nowhere.” It previously connected to Richard J. Daley Bicentennial Plaza, which is now being transformed into Maggie Daley Park.
“I personally consider Millennium Park one of the best, if not the best, public spaces built in the Western world in the last 50 years—it’s an incredible attraction,” says Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. “The reason I’m building out Maggie Daley Park is to build on that strength.”
Like Millennium Park, its new sister park is being paid for with public and private funds; it’s expected to cost “around $60 million,” says Eve Rodriguez, the mayor’s assistant press secretary. A soft opening is planned for this fall, with the official opening slated for spring or summer 2015, after plantings take place. Says Emanuel, “I know a lot of other mayors are jealous of what we do here in the sense of public-private partnership.”
With a children’s play area, rock-climbing walls, and a skating ribbon, “it’s going to be a more physically active area that will complement Millennium Park,” adds Matt Nielson, deputy commissioner for cultural planning and operations in Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
In addition to its abundant plant life, in spring and fall the Lurie Garden is a popular rest stop for migrating birds.
10. WORLD CLASS
Millennium Park is a key to increasing Chicago’s status as a hot international tourist destination.
As Mayor Emanuel tries to increase Chicago’s rank as a tourist destination (currently it’s ninth in the US) and boost its number of annual visitors to 55 million by 2020, he says he sees Millennium Park as “a hub to that process.” But while visitors are important, adds Gilfoyle, it’s also about making Chicago a more desirable place to live, attracting millennials and people in their 30s, especially those in the tech industry, who want urban living with cultural amenities. Millennium Park “is more than just a cultural statement and piece of art,” he says. “It [has] an economic function.”
To accomplish that means spending money. Building the park took $484 million, with $222 million raised from more than 100 individuals, foundations, and corporations, according to Gilfoyle’s book. That’s in addition to the $29.5 million in short-term loans that the city took out between 2005 and 2011 to operate the park, and the $6.195 million the city has budgeted for 2014 for that same purpose, according to Rodriguez.
But despite the hefty price tag, the success of Millennium Park as a free gathering place for visitors and locals alike has been undeniable. “It incorporates all that’s great about Chicago and really has joined the city’s other iconic great assets,” says Desiree Rogers, chair of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism marketing arm. Adds Bryan, “It is all we imagined it would be in defining Chicago to the world.” And Cindy Pritzker puts it even more simply in summing up the ultimate appeal of this urban oasis: “It’s the people’s park.”
photography by Getty Images (Bean); scott mcdonald/Hedrich Blessing (Pritzker);
The official Parade of Boats viewing party for the 106th Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac.