By Stephan Benzkofer
January 8, 2012
As Chicago waits for the latest renovation plans for Navy Pier, it is safe to say that whatever is unveiled, it won't be any wackier than what the pier already has seen in its 95 years.
Navy Pier has been an entertainment venue, a university, a naval base, an army base, a convention center, a food storage facility and, well, a pier. It has hosted stars as diverse as the Johnny Hand Band and Kool and the Gang and festivals as big as the Pageant of Progress and ChicagoFest. It has been the home of sporting events, too, namely boxing, tennis, swimming — and in 1921, a race between airplanes and pigeons. (The pigeons won.)
The municipal pier opened in July 1916 to much fanfare. The Tribune boasted on July 5: "No city in the world has any structure on a water front that compares with the new Municipal pier."
In fact, the pier was so popular that first summer that the crowds overwhelmed the transit system. The streetcars ran to the end of the pier but officials complained that not enough cars were running. Saying "the streetcar problem is the worst we have," the harbor master tried to arrange ferryboats to taxi visitors to and from the pier.
In addition to the city view and the cool lake breezes, the pier in its early years offered dancing and music, and there was much excitement about the regular appearance of famed Chicago conductor Johnny Hand.
Despite its current name, which was adopted in 1927, the Army moved in first. In May 1917, a month after the U.S. declared war on Germany, the pier made its first transformation, this time to a barracks and training facility for the Third Reserve Engineers regiment. The Navy had to settle for tents in Grant Park.
None of that activity infringed on the public's enjoyment of the pier. The summer schedule in 1917 included dancing, Sunday evening community singalongs and lots of "mechanical devices intended to please the little folk," such as teeter-totters, slides and merry-go-rounds.
In 1921 and 1922, the pier hosted the Pageant of Progress, billed as the "greatest collection of business and industrial exhibits this city has seen" since the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. The two-week summer pageants drew hundreds of thousands of visitors who were wowed by such disparate entertainment as mock pirate attacks, sky-diving stunts, speedboat races, the advance of firefighting equipment through time, a typing contest (126 words per minute was good enough to win) and, of course, Dental Day. The pier was a major convention center for decades, hosting the Flower and Garden Show as early as 1932, the National Motor Truck Show in 1939 and the Automotive Services Industry Show in the late 1930s.
With World War II, Navy Pier became the Navy's pier. In 1941, about 10,000 people lived, trained and worked there, requiring a 2,500-seat theater, gymnasium, 12-chair barber shop, tailor and cobbler shops, soda fountain, vast kitchen and hospital. The city turned over the entire upper level for the nation's largest training center for naval aviation mechanics and metalsmiths.
The Navy held live-fire and submarine-hunting exercises, and in possibly the oddest exhibition ever at the pier, they subjected graduating sailors to a real gas attack in a specially constructed chamber. The Navy presence also included two training aircraft carriers, the USS Wolverine and the USS Sable, which docked at the foot of the pier.
Just as the Navy was winding down its mission at the pier in 1946, the University of Illinois opened a Chicago branch of the school at the pier. In October, 4,000 students were enrolled and taking classes. But with a maximum capacity of less than 5,500, the school outgrew the pier. In 1965, the school moved to the Circle Campus.
After the university departed, the pier fell into worse disrepair. As the city waits for the next transformation of the pier, it's hard to remember just how bad it was. ChicagoFest, which drew tens of thousands of music fans to the pier for a few weeks each summer from 1978 to 1983, was held between the two original hulking warehouses, the crowd stretching the length of the pier. As the visitors rocked and boogied to Kool and the Gang and Frank Sinatra, pigeons and gulls flew in and out of the buildings through numerous broken windows and holes in the roof.
But ChicagoFest's success reminded city planners of Navy Pier's great potential, and with the massive renovation in the early 1990s, the pier was back where it started as a "pleasure pier for public good."
The Pugh Pier?
Chicago's Navy Pier almost was named the Pugh Pier. James A. Pugh was Mayor William Hale Thompson's friend, as was made clear in the Tribune's Oct. 8, 1915, story about the Harbor Commission's naming decision. But Pugh's claim was actually much stronger. Pugh was a businessman, politician, developer and sportsman known as "Commodore Jim." While the idea for the pier is often credited to Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago, which was published in 1909, Pugh was presenting plans and architect's illustrations for a pier to the Chicago City Council in October 1908. His original plan included a massive harbor running from Chicago Avenue to just north of the river, with three huge docks placed where Navy Pier is now. Pugh fought for years in court and the newspapers to get his pier built, but eventually the city's desire to build a publicly owned pier won out, and Pugh relinquished his rights to the land. The Harbor Commission voted to put that animus aside to honor the Commodore in 1915, less than a year before the pier was to open. So what happened? Pugh and Thompson had a falling out in January 1916. Municipal Pier it became. On Dec. 28, 1927, the Municipal Pier became Navy Pier, a counterpart to the army memorial that is Soldier Field.
Big Bill's grubby hands
With the notoriously corrupt Mayor Thompson in office, a big public project meant contracts and favors for him and his friends. The pier was no different. The pier's opening summer was marred by lack of restaurants, soda fountains or popcorn stands because the mayor squashed the contract, then handcuffed the businessman with a temporary permit. To make matters worse, the concessionaire complained, when he finally did get city approval, he had to deal with "friends of the administration" who insisted on being subcontractors.
Thompson also was accused of making a personal profit as president of the Pageant of Progress committee in 1921. He denied everything but was forced to step down as pageant president following an investigation. Further, convention exhibitors repeatedly complained of "extortion" at the pier during Thompson's reign as strict union rules and other city regulations meant they were "being robbed right and left."
To add insult to injury, before the thousands of visitors arrived for the pageant, Thompson replaced a plaque commemorating the pier's opening and honoring former Mayor Carter Harrison, who had worked mightily to get the pier built, with one bearing his own name.
Editor's note: Thanks go to Jim Morrill of Elk Grove Village for suggesting this Flashback.
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