With hulking jackhammers poised to start slugging away Monday at Soldier Field's northern entrance, perhaps the only mystery left in its latest and most dramatic journey to reincarnation is why it took so long.
Although this may surprise the stadium's staunchest defenders, Chicago's leaders have been mulling the idea of either destroying, dismantling or overhauling the storied sports arena for nearly half a century.
In the early 1960s it appeared its days were numbered when the chief of the Chicago Park District called for its destruction so that a multipurpose stadium could be built south of the field.
Faced with fierce opposition from preservationists, Mayor Richard J. Daley endorsed a new facility but shrewdly disavowed approving the idea of tearing down the 1924 stadium. He then punted, establishing a panel to study the matter.
And so it came to be almost ritualistic: Each time Chicago's answer to ancient Rome's Colosseum appeared to be on death's doorstep, it was saved--either by good fortune, mayoral blessing or, most often, by political stalemate.
Indeed, even as jackhammer crews were expected to work through the early morning hours Monday, a court hearing is set for Tuesday to hear further arguments in a lawsuit seeking to stop the demolition, even after it has begun.
On Sunday, workers continued to remove seats, office furniture and concessions as they prepared for the heavy demolition scheduled to start Monday, project spokesman Thomas Hardy said. Crews had been working since 9:30 p.m. Saturday, scant hours after the Bears' playoff loss to the Eagles.
Technically, Soldier Field is not being destroyed, only reinvented--yet again.
But by squeezing a huge seating bowl inside its historic Doric colonnades, the stadium soon will bear little architectural resemblance to its original or, for that matter, any, of its altered states. It will be transformed into a massive modern stadium to be used almost exclusively by the Chicago Bears.
"It was designed for pageantry and parades and sporting events and all kinds of things," said Tim Samuelson, curator of architecture at the Chicago Historical Society. "I can't see it being used for much else but football anymore. In many respects, that's a real shame."
Decades of delights
Over its nearly 80 years of life, the stadium on Chicago's lakefront has been the site of more than its share of diverse, sometimes bizarre events. Among them: a raucous gathering to hail President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a civil rights rally led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., ski jumping, and, perhaps its most historic sports moment--the second Gene Tunney-Jack Dempsey heavyweight bout with its famous long count that gave Tunney the victory.
The tale of Soldier Field is long, rich and filled with Chicago lore, even if its precise origin is subject to debate.
Chicago parks officials have often said that it was part of Daniel Burnham's 1909 plan, although historians point out that Burnham proposed a "grass meadow" of athletic fields--not a stadium with tens of thousands of seats.
In her book "Forever Open, Clear and Free," former Tribune editorial page editor Lois Wille wrote that "the construction of Soldier Field was a gross blunder, one of a series of departures from the Burnham Plan made in the 1920s in the name of expediency and short-term razzle-dazzle (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text)."
Steeped in political tradition
In the early 1900s, Chicagoans talked for years about a municipal stadium as part of projects to improve the lakefront inspired by the Burnham Plan.
Although civic boosters, even among the press, had plans for building the world's biggest stadium, it didn't work out that way. Instead it resembled many other sprawling sports palaces of that era: the Los Angeles Coliseum, Cleveland Municipal Stadium and Francis Field in St. Louis, among others.
Financial issues cropped up almost immediately and, in a city long known for political clout and cronyism, they sound hauntingly familiar to issues involving city contracts today.
When Edward Kelly became mayor in 1933 after the death of Anton Cermak, some newspapers criticized the former South Park Board president under whom Soldier Field became "the $2,500,000 project whose cost mysteriously skyrocketed to $8,500,000." Newspapers contended that the South Park Board awarded a contract to a favored builder whose bid was $320,000 higher than another bidder's.
The Soldier Field project also highlighted the issue of public property used for private gain. In 1933, allegations were raised that a private contractor charged money for a public accommodation at the field--the use of "comfort stations," or restrooms.
It seems that some spectators at the Century of Progress World's Fair were denied use of the facilities. A contractor had installed 5-cent turnstiles in front of the restrooms, and some patrons didn't have a nickel.
On Nov. 22, 1924, the first football game was held at Soldier Field, then called Grant Park Municipal Stadium. Heavily favored Notre Dame survived Northwestern 13-6 in front of a then-capacity crowd of 45,000.
Two years later, Army and Navy moved their game to the Midwest. Their face-off marked the dedication of an expanded stadium, which was renamed in honor of the women and men of the military. The first game ended in a 21-21 tie.
Soldier Field's early days also saw one of its strangest gatherings.
News reports describe a crowd of 50,000 students who "flocked to Grant Park from every room in every public and parochial school" to attend "the biggest demonstration of Chicago's interest in traffic and public safety ever staged." The event included a procession of 188 children the same age as 188 children killed in traffic accidents in Chicago in 1926.
Structural weaknesses consistently dogged the facility. Only 11 years after its construction, in 1935, newspapers reported that Soldier Field was crumbling. From 1936 to 1939, the Chicago Park District, with federal public works' help, renovated the field and added its Administration Building, which solved the structural problem for another 20 years.
Cardinals, Pan Am Games, Elvis
Soldier Field perhaps saw its darkest days in the 1950s and `60s, when it had no primary money-generating tenant except a two-year stint by the Chicago Cardinals football team and the highly publicized but one-time Pan Am Games. Various sporting events, primarily college football, fireworks displays and concerts, were also held.
In the late 1950s, Samuelson of the Historical Society said he recalls seeing, amid a fireworks display, a five-story-tall image of Elvis Presley, complete with guitar.
"They lit up this huge Elvis Presley like a Christmas tree and had his arm swinging on that guitar, although I think the park district was too shy to make his hips gyrate," Samuelson recalled.
Clearly, football--both pro and collegiate--has been the mainstay of Soldier Field. Each July from 1934 to 1976, the stadium held the College Football All-Star game, pitting the best college seniors against the pro champions of that year.
Sponsored by Chicago Tribune Charities, the game eventually was canceled because of declining interest.
It was during the 1960s that legendary Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi said Chicago would be foolish to consider housing its football team anywhere else, even though that was the common sentiment.
"Lombardi said, `My god, I can't understand why there is talk of a new stadium and why the people of Chicago would want build anything over this--the grandest, most picturesque football palace in the country,'" said Cooper Rollow, a retired Tribune sports editor. "Of course, he didn't have to sit up in the stands."
Rollow agreed with Lombardi about the site, but he said Soldier Field's design was always poor for most football fans because too few seats--about a third--were between the 20-yard lines. During many events, patrons complained that only politicians and people of influence had prime viewing seats.
"Anyone who was unfortunate enough to be seated 20 or 40 yards behind the end zone was to be pitied, just pitied," Rollow said.
Razing talk, then remodeling
In the early 1970s, the question of razing the stadium popped up again, especially after about 300 seats in Section 26 collapsed under the weight of sandbags during a stress test.
In 1982, Mayor Jane Byrne, who floated a plan to build a racetrack at the stadium, completed a $32 million renovation that gave the field its current seating configuration.
What has preserved the stadium in recent decades undoubtedly has been its primary tenant, the Bears, who began playing there in 1971. Soldier Field also has hosted massive rock concerts by the Rolling Stones (twice), Grateful Dead and U2.
Former Parks Supt. Edmund Kelly said he takes greatest pride in having brought the Irish Olympic boxing team to Soldier Field during his tenure. He said his first time in Soldier Field came during the football game between Austin High and Leo High on Nov. 27, 1937, when he was in 7th grade.
Sponsors said more than 100,000 people attended the game, the largest high school football crowd in state history.
"It was the Super Bowl to us," Kelly said. "It was like going to the Super Bowl, not just for being the championship game. It was the thrill of being able to go to Soldier Field and be at that great stadium."Copyright © 2015, CT Now