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.
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.