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Burnham Vision

At the dawn of the 20th century, Daniel Burnham is one of the most revered and respected architects in the world, and one of the world’s busiest ports is his canvas for the first urban plan ever created. Burnham envisions public piers that transform Chicago’s lakefront into attractive and useful civic space for recreation and social interaction— sources of pride and common ground that foster a sense of community within the city’s diverse population.

Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-79033_24;
Chicago Architectural Photo Co., photographer

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Plan of Chicago

To further his goal of reclaiming the lakefront for the public, Burnham’s famed Plan of Chicago proposes a new lake harbor sheltered by two piers at Chicago Avenue and Cermak Road. While Burnham is adamant that the lakefront ‘need not be ruled by commerce,’ he recognizes that Great Lakes shipping is crucial to the region’s economy. His innovative sketches call for public access and recreational areas to be integrated with new slips and loading docks in ways never seen before.

City planners with the Harbor and Subway Commission like Burnham’s lakefront concepts and propose building five piers to relieve heavy river traffic and boost Chicago’s position in the lake shipping industry.


Design & Construction

In the wake of Burnham’s death in 1912, the Harbor and Subway Commission engages architect Charles Sumner Frost to design the first of five piers the city plans to build. Frost stays true to Burnham’s vision by designing two double-decker freight and passenger sheds in the middle of the pier to serve business needs along with classically designed buildings at the head and foot of the pier to serve as grand places for public assembly.


Then & Now

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Photo Credit (left): Chicago History Museum, ICHi-79033_49;
Chicago Architectural Photo Co., photographer

Daniel Burnham, 1909

“The lakefront by right belongs to the people… it should be made so alluring that it will become the fixed habit of the people to seek its restful presence at every opportunity.”

Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum,
ICHi-79033_24; Chicago Architectural Photo Co., photographer


Grand Opening

Municipal Pier No. 2 opens in 1916, the first of its kind to combine the business of shipping with the pleasure of public entertainment. At a cost of $5 million, the 292-foot-wide Pier, ‘built by the city for the people,’ is the largest in the world, projecting east 3,040 feet into Lake Michigan. It remains the longest public pier in the world today.


The Pier establishes itself as a major presence on the lakefront, enjoying a golden age of commercial and cultural success before falling into disuse in the early ‘40s. It thrives as a civic center throughout the 1920s, drawing 3.2 million for live bands, musical acts, concerts, plays, art exhibits, children’s activities, airplane and motorboat races and fireworks displays. The Pier also bustles with a high volume of package freighter and excursion boat activity until the onset of the Great Depression.

Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-73578

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Immediately Popular

4th of July holiday crowds flock to the unfinished Pier to escape the city heat and enjoy the promised ‘cool lake breezes’ and open air promenades even before it officially opens to the public on July 15, 1916.

Chicago Tribune, 1916

“No city in the world has any structure on the water front that compares with the new Municipal Pier.”

Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-73578


Then & Now

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Service During War Time

As the United States enters World War One, the Pier houses several regiments of soldiers, Red Cross workers and home defense units while serving as a barracks for recruits and a jail for draft dodgers.


Pageants of Progress

Two Pageants of Progress are a highlight of the Pier’s civic glory days, billed as ‘the greatest collection of business and industrial exhibits the city has seen since the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition’. The two-week summer pageants draw more than a million visitors with thrills like sky diving stunts, speed boat races and mock pirate attacks.


Dedicated to Honor

As a tribute to Navy personnel who served in World War I, Municipal Pier # 2 is officially renamed Navy Pier in their honor.


Trade Show Boom

Despite the gradual decline in shipping activity, Navy Pier holds steady as a convention center by hosting the Flower and Garden Show, the National Motor Truck Show, the Automotive Services Industry Show and other major exhibitions.


Commercial Downturn

The Pier’s commercial business continues to suffer from the onset of the Great Depression, an increase in the popularity of rail freight and the advent of automobiles and trucks. Amid the city and the nation’s growing financial woes, plans for four additional piers are abandoned and regular maintenance starts to decline.


The Navy's Pier

The U.S. Navy takes occupancy and converts the Pier into the largest training facility of its kind in the world— serving an important role in the Allied war effort. By 1946, more than 60,000 sailors and marines have learned to become metalsmiths, aviation mechanics and diesel operators at Navy Pier.


Then & Now

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Chicago is lucky to find two occupants to lease the Pier’s underutilized cargo facilities, which transform first into training grounds and a mess hall to suit the needs of the U.S. Navy and then into classrooms, a library and a gymnasium for the University of Illinois’s first Chicago campus. Although used for vastly different purposes, both terms elevate the Pier’s historical importance and national significance during and after wartime.

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The New School

After World War II, the University of Illinois needs a place to expand due to the increase in enrollment by veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill. Affectionately dubbed ‘Harvard on the Rocks,’ campus life enlivens the Pier for nearly twenty years before the University relocates in 1965.


Mid-Century Resurgence

The Pier regains commercial success as a home for trade shows and becomes a world freight terminal with the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. The opening of the Seaway is commemorated by a visit from Queen Elizabeth II, who calls it ‘an unforgettable day’.


Then & Now

Slide to see how much has changed – and how much hasn’t.

Drag the diamond to transform the image


Shifting Space

McCormick Place takes over as Chicago’s home for major trade shows, but the now vacant space on the Pier proves useful as a testing ground for large-scale public events, such as Chicago’s first Holiday Folk Fair, featuring foods and products representative of Chicago’s many ethnic communities.


Commercial Shipping Decline

In the mid-1960s Chicago is identified as the ‘greatest inland port in the world’ as more than 250 foreign vessels dock at the Pier during the brief resurgence of the Great Lakes shipping industry. But the Seaway ultimately fails to generate enough international trade to keep the Pier competitive with the more modern facilities at Lake Calumet, and the late 1960s bring an abrupt end to the Pier’s popularity as a major shipping port.


With the University of Illinois at Chicago moved to its new home west of downtown, the decline of commercial shipping, and McCormick Place housing the majority of the tradeshows, Navy Pier fell into disuse, more artifact than attraction. America celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, the city reconsidered the building that had played such a grand role in its history, and breathed life into Burnham’s vision once again.

Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-25730;
Copelin, photographer

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Bicentennial Celebration

The east buildings are opened as exhibition halls during Chicago’s celebration of America’s bicentennial.


Grand Ballroom Reconstruction

The Pier’s spectacular Grand Ballroom undergoes a major renovation in honor of the U.S. bicentennial celebration. The entire Pier is designated a Chicago landmark.



Navy Pier hosts ChicagoFest and draws millions of visitors with music, food and entertainment offerings. Frank Sinatra, Kool & The Gang, Alice Cooper, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are just some of the artists that played the festival. The event eventually grows to become the Taste of Chicago.


Festival Grounds & Art Fairs

Special events and art festivals draw crowds, but aging infrastructure keeps the Pier underutilized.


Redevelopment Momentum Builds

Chicago creates the Navy Pier Development Authority to address an urgent need for repair and revitalization. The Authority forms a board of civic leaders and urban planning professionals to help set the redevelopment process in motion.


Urban Land Institute Study

The Urban Land Institute is asked to study the Pier’s future and make recommendations to the city. The land use experts suggest creating a master redevelopment authority to oversee the work needed to save the Pier’s crumbling infrastructure.

Urban Land Institute, 1989

“Navy Pier should be a platform upon which all citizens – entrepreneurs, artists, organizations and institutions – can find an inspiring common ground to share their lives with one another.”

Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-25730;
Copelin, photographer


New Management

The Illinois General Assembly creates the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) to manage both the redevelopment of Navy Pier and the expansion of McCormick Place. The city subsequently sells Navy Pier to MPEA for $10 and state government provides $150 million to redevelop the Pier as part of a public infrastructure improvement program.


The Pier is reborn. Gone are the aged shipping facilities and reminders of the once-booming era of industry gone by. The architectural silhouettes of the Head House and east end recreational buildings remain intact and serves as a grand backdrop for the new stage being set. A Ferris wheel lights up the skyline as an iconic symbol of the new Navy Pier. Redevelopment brings back a balance of commerce and culture and millions of people from all walks of life come together on the Pier’s lakefront as Burnham had intended.

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Concept Plan for Navy Pier

MPEA drafts a concept plan to breathe civic life back into the Pier and guide commercial development. It calls for the Pier to have public promenades and open areas for simple enjoyment of the lakefront, plus museum and exhibition space, retail and food offerings, an indoor garden and the return of excursion boats to the South Dock.

Concept Plan for Navy Pier, 1990

“Navy Pier is and should remain primarily a public place for the use and enjoyment of Chicago-area residents and visitors. Its revitalization should reflect and build upon its unique location in the Lake, its historic significance to the City and the region and its historic architectural silhouette.”


A $150 Million Redevelopment Program

Improvements are made to nearly every aspect of Navy Pier, including restoration of the historic Head House building and the construction of the Festival Hall, parking garages, Pier Park, and many other attractions.


The Skyline Stage Opens

The Pier’s new 1,500-seat outdoor performance pavilion, the Skyline Stage, is the first new attraction to open to the public, featuring such acts as Alice Cooper, Pat Benatar, Cheap Trick, WNVA Smooth Jazz Series, Poi Dog Pondering, Gov’t Mule, and Cirque Shanghai.


Navy Pier Re-opens

The newly renovated Pier gradually re-opens to the public, featuring a mix of year-round entertainment, shops, restaurants, attractions and exhibition facilities.

Mayor Richard Daley, 1995

“Navy Pier is reclaiming its destiny.”


Original Ferris Wheel

The 150-foot-tall red and white Ferris wheel made the Pier an iconic part of the Chicago skyline.


4.5 Million Guests in First Year

Navy Pier attracts 4.5 million guests in the first full year of operations and grows to become the most popular sightseeing destination in the Midwest, attracting more than 9 million visitors and contributing millions to the local economy.


Winter WonderFest is Introduced

With an indoor skating rink and more than 24 holiday rides, Winter WonderFest becomes a Chicago tradition and brings more people to the Pier in the off-season.


Best in the Midwest

Despite a national decline in tourism and convention business, Navy Pier maintains its place as the top leisure destination in the Midwest, attracting more than twice as many people as any other Chicago destination. Free public amenities, such as waterfront fireworks displays, live music and entertainment, remain a driving force in its summertime popularity.


Local Showcase

Navy Pier adds a new mix of Chicago brands like Garrett Popcorn and Harry Caray’s Tavern and tests new attractions like a tethered hot air balloon, a virtual reality experience and guided Segway tours linking the Pier to other landmarks.


Urban Land Institute Returns

The Urban Land Institute is again called upon to evaluate redevelopment options as the Pier approaches its 100th birthday. A panel of land use experts suggests another change in governing structure to allow Navy Pier to raise its own funds for redevelopment and long-term sustainability. The Illinois General Assembly subsequently passes legislation that allows Navy Pier to be governed as its own non-profit entity.

Urban Land Institute, 2010

“Navy Pier is the one major public assets on Lake Michigan’s shore that Chicagoans can call their own.”

Centennial Vision

If the last renovation brought the Pier back to life, this renovation brings it into the 21st century. More greenspace than marketplace, the new Navy Pier is a modern interpretation of Burnham’s vision – a public place where all Chicagoans can relax, explore, and simply take in the beauty of the lake and the skyline.

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Formulation of a New Non-Profit

Navy Pier, Inc. (NPI) is established as a nonprofit, mission-driven organization, aspiring to a new level of public service and commitment to making a positive community impact.


Centennial Vision Unveiled

Navy Pier, Inc. introduces a Centennial Vision framework for reimaging Navy Pier for the next generation of Chicagoans. An international design contest invites architects and planners to submit their ideas for what the Navy Pier of the future could look like.


A Sustainable Navy Pier

As part of the Centennial Vision, a 30-year Sustainable Master Plan for Navy Pier is created to address its long-term environmental impact in target areas of energy, water, waste, transportation and community.


Winning Design Plan

Developed by the renowned designer of Manhattan’s High Line, James Corner Field Operation’s “Pierscape” plan is chosen as the winning design for Navy Pier. A key part of Corner’s vision is to bring people closer to the water in a more vibrant setting for recreation and social life.

James Corner, 2012

“The design of the public spaces of Navy Pier presents a wonderful and unique opportunity to reconnect Chicago to the lake, to culture, and to spectacle.”


Bigart Exhibit

The free outdoor art exhibition at the Pier features works by legendary pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, debuting his sculpture, “Brushstroke Group.” Other works on display include Anthony Caro’s “Blazon” and Nancy Rubin’s “Monochrome II Chicago.”


Transformation Begins

Construction begins on Navy Pier’s new “Pierscape,” promising a greener, more contemporary pier.


Ferris Wheel World Record

Clinton Shepard rides the Ferris wheel for 48 hours, 8 minutes and 25 seconds, setting the current Guinness World Record for the longest marathon on a fairground or theme park attraction


Polk Bros Foundation Gift

The Polk Bros Foundation announces a $20 million legacy gift in honor of the Polk Family supporting Navy Pier’s vision to better serve Chicago. Navy Pier’s 13-acre green front door is renamed Polk Bros Park in recognition of their generous contribution. A new design for the Park is unveiled, including a graceful new promenade, an expansive plaza anchored by an interactive fountain and two new performance lawns and stages.


Community Input

Navy Pier engages Chicago’s performing arts community and accessibility leaders on informing the design of new performance spaces in Polk Bros Park, translating to a better universal experience for all users, including performers, families and differently-abled people.


Green Infrastructure Grant

An innovative stormwater management system is installed along the Pier’s South Dock to help prevent flooding and improve water quality. Innovative tree tubs built into the Dock are funded by a grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Aon Grand Ballroom

Navy Pier’s historic Grand Ballroom is renamed the Aon Grand Ballroom in recognition of a generous contribution from the Aon Corporation.


The People's Navy Pier

With the physical transformation well underway, Navy Pier begins to redefine its future vision and mission as a cultural institution and launches a comprehensive planning process to create a master plan for robust arts and discovery programming that will help the Pier become a cultural force.


Last Ride

30,000 people ride the iconic Ferris wheel for the last time before it is removed to make room for a new wheel. The wheel had nearly 17 million riders since it opened in 1995.


Centennial Wheel

The Centennial Wheel stands 50 feet taller than the previous wheel and features 42 climate-controlled gondolas from which to enjoy breathtaking views. Today, it stands among the six tallest wheels in the country.


New Flavors. More Views.

A new food experience brings an elevated and flavorful dining experience to the Pier focused on local restaurants and fare. It includes a newly created dining area with waterfront views and social seating.


Wave Wall

Like the Spanish Steps in Rome, the Wave Wall stairs are a natural gathering place. Featuring dramatic curves and seamlessly connecting the South Dock to Pier Park, the stairs serve as both a beautiful focal point and an impromptu amphitheater.


Polk Bros Park Fountain & Plaza

Polk Bros Park Fountain & Plaza turns Navy Pier’s front entrance into a destination in its own right. A dramatic fountain anchors the Park, evoking interest and wonder by mimicking the movements of waves, schools of fish and flocks of birds through hundreds of programmable jets.


Breezy Green Walkways

With shady trees, grasses, and benches, the renovated pathways of the South dock transform what was once a cramped commercial gauntlet into an airy boulevard, perfect for walking, sitting, or just soaking up sunshine.


Chicago Shakespeare Theater

As the Pier expands, so will the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. A new 950-seat house will replace the Skyline Stage and compliment the theater’s existing spaces, while accommodating audiences of all sizes for bigger, more ambitious performances with its new convertible/scalable seating.


Navy Pier Hotel Announced

Boasting over 200 rooms and unparalleled views of the lake and skyline, the new hotel will be part of the bold reimagining of the Pier under the Centennial Vision, making Navy Pier not just an exciting place to visit, but an incredible place to stay.


The Centennial Wheel Opens

The Centennial Wheel takes its inaugural spin on May 27th. Standing 50 feet taller than the previous wheel and featuring 42 climate-controlled gondolas from which to enjoy breathtaking views year round, it’s one of the six tallest wheels in the country.


100 Rides for 100 Years

100 non-profits are invited to share free rides on the brand new Centennial Wheel with the communities they serve in celebration of the Pier’s 100th anniversary.


Navy Pier Hosts the Louis Vuitton America's Cup World Series

For the first time ever, an America’s Cup race is held on fresh water, with Chicago selected to be the stage. A record-breaking crowd of over 200,000 people watches this celebrated sailing race from Navy Pier as competitors whip up and down the coast, fighting for position in a pulse-pounding finale dubbed “Super Sunday.”


Navy Pier Pride

On June 25th, Navy Pier hosts Chicago’s first pride celebration outside of the Lakeview neighborhood with family-friendly entertainment and Chicago-centric sections of the AIDS memorial quilt on display.


Art's & Culture At The Forefront

After an intense 18 month planning process with Dickerson Global Advisors and conversations with artists like Jamie Bennett on how to connect communities through art and self-expression, Navy Pier debuts brand new arts, cultural and community programing to celebrate Chicago’s diversity. From the dazzling choreography of the Chicago Dancing Festival to the extraordinary rising stars of Chicago Beatbox LTD, there’s never been more to experience at Navy Pier.


100TH Birthday

Navy Pier throws the celebration of a century, giving back to guests with free, fun activities and a birthday cake as big as the occasion. When it comes time to blow out the candles, the Pier makes the wishes of Chicagoans come true with a grand fireworks finale that lights up smiles across the city.


Polk Bros Fountain & Plaza

Polk Bros Fountain & Plaza turns Navy Pier’s front entrance into a destination in its own right. A dramatic fountain anchors the Park, evoking interest and wonder by mimicking the movements of waves, schools of fish and flocks of birds through hundreds of programmable jets.


City Council Approves Phase 2

The second phase of the Centennial Vision redevelopment plan is approved, clearing the way for the construction of a hotel, the addition of an elevated walkway and water feature to the East End Plaza, a welcome pavilion and seasonal ice rink in Polk Bros Park and more.


New Mission, New Values

To reflect the Pier’s ever-evolving role, a new mission statement is created, anchoring the Pier as “The People’s Pier” and “Chicago’s lakefront treasure,” while committing to be “welcoming of all and offering dynamic and eclectic experiences through partnerships and programs that inspire discovery and wonder.” The Pier announces four values as well, keeping excellence, inclusion, integrity and stewardship at the forefront of everything they do.


Sites Certification

Navy Pier is awarded with the prestigious SITES Gold certification in recognition of the Pier’s sophisticated level of sustainability. SITES certification takes water use, soils, vegetation, material selection, human health, construction, maintenance and innovative design into account to determine and recognize the most sustainable landscapes in the world.


Expo Chicago & Sofa Chicago

As a part of the Pier’s expanded commitment to Arts and Culture programming, SOFA and EXPO return Navy Pier’s exhibition halls. Showcasing exceptional three-dimensional and contemporary artworks respectively, these shows bring the latest in the international creative culture to the People’s Pier.


Tall Ships Dock At Navy Pier

As a part of the Fifth Third Bank Centennial Celebration, Navy Pier welcomes the return of the Tall Ships festival. Guests can view, board and sail on more than 15 vessels, including the Viking Ship “Draken Harald Hårfagre” and “El Galeon Andalucia,” a 170-foot replica of a real 16th century Spanish Galleon.


Navy Pier Documentary

WTTW marks the Centennial of the People’s Pier with an hour-long documentary. The film follows Geoffrey Baer as he highlights the evolution of the Pier, from mixed-use shipping center to modern lakefront paradise.


Cubs Win The World Series

After the rally downtown, Navy Pier celebrates the Cubs’ historic World Series victory by putting the Cubs logo on the Centennial Wheel and offers discounted rides all day long. Thousands come to “Ride the W.”


First Tree Lightning Ceremony

Navy Pier marks the holidays with its first ever tree lighting ceremony in the new Polk Bros Park. Guests enjoy carol singers, free hot cocoa and even a visit from Santa.



The Rolling Stones first ever major exhibit, delivered by DHL, allows you to experience the incredible journey of the most influential rock ‘n’ roll band in the world from their early days living together in a tiny flat to headlining the biggest stages in the world.


Public Art

Navy Pier offers city dwellers the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to create music and art with seesaws with public art installation, Impulse. Roger Hiorns brings his interactive piece, “A retrospective view of the pathway” to Polk Bros Park. This piece is comprised of large-scale stainless steel tanks, a compressor, and foam, presenting the idea of continuous change in a joyous and ebullient manner.

The 100-year evolution of Navy Pier tells the story of a world-class city and its people. Our centennial reimagining is returning this extraordinary place to its genesis as a vital extension of urban life. Celebrate our journey and experience our future. We welcome you to join us beginning this summer for countless events and programs.

Come see Navy Pier in a new light.

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