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A Complete History of Grant Park, Chicago's Greatest Park Space

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An in-depth look into the complex history of Grant Park's green spaces and how they came to be Chicago's front yard

Largely referred to as Chicago's front yard, Grant Park and its immediate vicinity is a series of green spaces which have always been in a constant state of change and renewal. As part of Renovations Week, here is a look into the history of how a lakefront was shaped over the years.

1830 Map of the Lakefront
Chicago Public Library

On March 4, 1837, Chicago was officially incorporated as a city, just less than four years after Chicago became recognized as a town. The population upon incorporation had grown to a mere 4,000 inhabitants, but this was an already impressive increase of approximately 1,500 percent within that short period of time. The city began to grow up around Fort Dearborn and the Chicago River, with the waterway serving as the community's main street. With the increase in population as well as the desire to begin selling land in order to raise money for the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal to link the Chicago River into the Mississippi Watershed via the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers, the mapping of the city began.

The first plat of Chicago determining the boundaries of streets and buildable lots dates to 1830, setting the streets to a width of 66 feet (the length of a surveyor's chain) and alleys to 16 feet of width bisecting evenly sized blocks. Named after its creator, the Thompson Plat of 1830 envisioned how the swampy lands beside a muddy prairie stream would eventually form a town and had set the basic standards of the street grid that would later spread throughout Chicago and its suburbs.

Thompson Plat of 1830
Public Domain

The plat was expanded upon in the mid 1830s to include the mapping of lakefront real estate as well as the grounds of Fort Dearborn, which by then began the process of formal decommissioning, but had remained standing until demolition in 1857. While parceling out the adjacent properties in 1836, a swath of land encompassing the beachfront along Michigan Avenue became a dedicated public space. Written onto the early maps of Chicago, this space was intended to be "Public Ground- A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of Any Buildings or Other Obstruction, Whatever."

The waterfront park had stretched from Jackson Street on the north and Lake Avenue on the south, the latter of which is a street that does not exist any more. Lake Avenue was located just to the south of where 11th Street is today and ran east of Michigan Avenue until meeting the shoreline. The open space was officially named Lake Park in 1847, but it didn't stay a waterfront park for very long.

Post 1836 plat of Chicago
Chicago Public Library

Lake Michigan, well known for its moody conditions based on the weather, quickly eroded the park land with strong waves kicked up in storms. Given the close proximity to the private real estate along Michigan Avenue, the city agreed to allow the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) to build a trestle running parallel to the beach about 300 feet offshore. The trestle came with a stone breakwall to protect it an the shoreline beyond and effectively created a lagoon after construction began in 1852. The deal was a good one for both parties, as shoreline protections were now in place and the IC railroad had a direct way into the rapidly growing city without having to purchase any property in the center of town.

Right of way for the Illinois Central Railroad
Chicago Public Library

In 1861, the State of Illinois passed a law requiring the consent of adjacent property owners for any further encroachment of the public ground and enhanced the law two years later to include any submerged lands below the waters of Lake Michigan, effectively making any landfill extensions of the park subject to the same standards. By 1869, the state had granted the right of way of the IC tracks all the way to the Chicago River, clearing the way for a large rail yard to form servicing a collection of grain elevators and boat docks. While railroads are credited as being the key to Chicago’s explosive growth in the 19th to and early 20th centuries, the local economy at the time was still very much tied to water transportation, and as such, an interchange between the two modes of transportation was the logical end point for the legendary north-south railroad which eventually reached New Orleans.

Lincoln Funeral Train on the IC Trestle, 1865
Illinois Digital Archives

By 1871, the city was booming and boosted 300,000 residents, but growth would come to a halt that autumn as the Great Chicago Fire swept through the city from the evening of October 8th to the morning of October 10th.  Over 100,000 people were left homeless as one third of the building stock was destroyed. As Chicago vowed to rebuild, the lakefront became the convenient dumping ground for the debris, expanding Lake Park outward and eventually filling the lagoon between the original shoreline and the railroad trestle.

During the rebuilding effort after the fire plans arose for a new building to serve as a convention hall. The city's first convention hall was the wigwam located at Lake and Market Streets (now the north-south portion of Wacker Drive) and hosted the Republican National Convention of 1860 — the convention which nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency. The building, like much of the city at the time, was built of wood and was lost in the fire. A replacement building was also a chance for boisterous citizens to prove that Chicago had not only recovered from the fire, but came back bigger and stronger than ever before.

W.W. Boyington, the architect who designed the famous water tower and adjacent water works building which survived the fire, was then commissioned to draw up plans for a new building that was intended to be on par with the exhibition halls of London and New York. This new convention center opened in September of 1872 and was then named the Interstate Industrial Exposition Building.

Interstate Industrial Exposition Building
Public Domain

The original intention of the building was to hold annual displays of manufactured goods while also promoting businesses within the recovering city. The structure also housed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a national Guard Armory and according to an old map, had a fire house attached to the north end of the building. The building stretched 800 feet long with a largely glass and metal exterior topped with two ornamental domes. The presidential races of 1880 and 1884 brought conventions to the building where James Garfield and Grover Cleveland were both nominated inside.

The building was sited between Michigan Avenue and the IC tracks, beyond which was still at that time largely open waters of Lake Michigan which would be filled in the coming years, some of the fill in fact included debris from the Great Fire. The management of the convention hall included a Fine Art Department which operated art shows in separate room and specialized in contemporary American works. While the building would have a short lifespan of only 20 years, the legacy of art displays at this location would carry on as the Art Institute of Chicago, whose main building along Michigan Avenue would open in 1893, initially as a welcoming hall for the World's Colombian Exposition and the only fair building to be built outside of the fairgrounds located in Jackson Park to the south.

Drawing of the Art Institute alongside the IC Tracks, 1893. Image from a Rand McNally Map
Public Domain
Art Institute's original building in the early 1900's.
Public Domain

The Art Institute as an organization itself was founded in 1871 and had moved between different buildings before agreeing to share the cost of constructing a new home with the fair. After the fair came to a close, the institute took possession of the Neo-Renaissance style building designed by the Boston-based firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. The building would be expanded not to long after the 1893 opening with wings that included a bridging over the IC tracks to the east. Later in the 20th century, the modern Columbus Drive Building designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill architect Walter Netsch opened in 1976 with a sculpture garden to the north featuring the reconstructed entrance archway to the Chicago Stock Exchange Building which used to stand on LaSalle Street in the Loop until demolition in 1972.

Later additions of the Art Institute alongside the construction of the Modern Wing in 2006.
Shawn Ursini

The most recent addition to the art institute is the Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing, encompassing 264,000 square feet between the older museum additions and Monroe Street to the north, opening in 2009.

The Art Institute was hardly the only the building that had been planned to occupy the space known as Grant Park today. Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago envisioned the park as a collection of museums and civic buildings, with the Field Museum of Natural History standing in the center. Although the park had expanded northward to Randolph Street, it became the site of numerous buildings over the years including two armories built by the Federal government.

The structures in the park began to draw the ire of Aaron Montgomery Ward, a merchant whose office and catalog warehouse was at the time constructed in the 0-100 block of North Michigan Avenue. Citing the statutes that adjacent land owners must agree to the construction of structures within the public grounds of Lake Park, he successfully won the first of four lawsuits in 1897, ending the practice of using the park as a garbage dumping ground on a increasingly industrialized waterfront to the north of the park and legally forcing the removal of structures except the Art Institute, which was indeed built with the consent of the neighbors. Three other lawsuits would follow to block the construction of libraries and the Field Museum, the latter of which was to be built where Buckingham Fountain now stands.

Grant Park railyards and landfill, circa 1906
Library of Congress

The Field Museum in particular was a lightning rod issue for Ward, who often did not get along with other millionaires in the city, especially Marshall Field. Burnham had proposed the museum would also be flanked by four monumental statues, as mentioned in a letter. The people to be immortalized in these statues included Christopher Columbus, the "Discoverer of America," George Washington, the "Founder of America," Abraham Lincoln, the "Liberator of America," and finally, a statue of Marshall Field, the "Merchant and Manufacturer whose benefice naturally follows and completes the work for which the first three laid the foundation."

The letter had been sent to the South Park Board Commissioners, one of the independent park districts at the time who managed Lake Park after the lands were transferred from city ownership. In 1901, Lake Park became officially known as Grant Park and a year later planning for the museum was officially underway. Needless to say, Ward went into his additional legal battles with a final victory in 1911. As part of the rulings, the courts had reaffirmed that any land created from landfill directly to the east of Grant Park’s boundaries was also to be open space free of additional structures.

Burnham had proposed using more landfill to expand the park eastward, and doing so for the entire city's lakefront. He noted that the amount of fill from coal ashes and basement excavations could easily be deployed for landfill operations rather than being dumped into the deeper waters of the lake. In 1911, the IC Railroad entered into a land swap deal for the submerged lands along the railway that had yet to be filled in. The transfer of rights had the allowed for the construction of the Field Museum to begin in 1915, on a location in the new Burnham Park, just outside the boundaries of Grant Park.

Construction of the Field Museum, July 12, 1918
Field Musuem
Field Museum South Entrance, September 12, 1918
Field Museum

By the time construction of the museum began, another structure had already anchored the south end of the park, the IC passenger station had opened in 1893 within a towering stone building designed in a neo-Romanesque style. Central Station as it was known had stood until 1974 when it met the wrecking ball.

Central Station in its later years
Library of Congress

A station has since continued to survive at this location as an open air platform at track level. The station house was located to south of lake Avenue and north of 12th Street (Roosevelt Road), a swath of land which wasn’t transferred to public ownership until about 1990 when planning was underway for the Central Station development largely constructed on the former railroad yards to the south, vacated after the station building was demolished. An old wooden trestle bridge which served the original platforms had remained until the early 2000s when it was replaced with present Museum Campus Station for the Metra Electric and South Shore Lines.

The 'Wild West' trestle was the last remaining portion of the former Central Station
Bob O'Neill/Grant Park Conservancy
11th Street/Museum Campus Station today
Shawn Ursini

As the Field Museum construction was underway in Burnham Park, Edward H. Bennett, a planner who worked hand in hand with Burnham on his Plan of Chicago, began drawing up plans for the Grant Park we largely recognize today. The plan included a French Beaux Arts style landscape plan with a series of interconnecting outdoor rooms framed by vegetation as well as the IC tracks which by now were located in a below grade open trench. Buckingham Fountain and many of the parks other features such as the Bowman and Spearman statues at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue were added to the park by 1929.

Grant Park as we know it taking shape
Port Urbanism

The Plan of Chicago’s proposed transformations were especially grand for the southern lakefront, with landfill not just for a swath of greenery linking Jackson Park to the south which had held the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, but also a chain of offshore islands creating a series of lagoons and harbors. As landfill operations for the new Burnham Park was underway, the Great Depression had set in and halted any island construction, except for Northerly Island at the far northern end of the proposed chain.

Northerly Island
Pinterest
Century of Progress Fairgrounds on Northerly Island

Northerly Island became the site of the Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933-1934, bringing a number of temporary structures which were removed after the fair came to a close. Also in 1934, ownership of Northerly Island and Grant Park was then transferred to the Chicago Park District when 22 independent park systems were merged into a unified organization. In the 1940’s the island was briefly considered as a location for United Nations before the organization ultimately decided on New York City. Soon afterward, an airstrip had opened on the Island named after Merrill C. Meigs who promoted Chicago as a center of aviation.

A control tower opened in 1952 and a modern terminal building was completed in 1961. The airport remained operational on park district land until 2003, when a team of bulldozers tore large Xs in the single runway serving the airport in the middle of the night, ending a long debate of what should become of the land after the airport’s original lease had expired. The Chicago Park District had set up a temporary concert pavilion to raise funds for the eventual transformation of the island into a naturalistic park, with a setting much like what the lakefront had looked like before a city was established. Although the rolling landscape is somewhat barren at the moment, its already possible to lose sight of the city within terraformed peninsula.

Northerly Island today
Shawn Ursini
Lagoon and future constructed wetland with a distant view of the Kenwood-Hyde Park Skyline
Shawn Ursini
Shawn Ursini
This land feature was the original shoreline of northerly island during the Century of Progress fair, before more land was added during the years as a airport.
Shawn Ursini
Shawn Ursini
Decommissioned Meigs Field airport control tower
Shawn Ursini
Meigs Field Terminal Building, now serving as a community center
Shawn Ursini

At the north end of Grant Park, rail yards had still existed well into the mid and later twentieth century, only giving way to surface parking as the train operations turned into passenger only service as Illinois Center, a cluster of skyscrapers rose between the park and the Chicago River. In 1976, a two story parking garage was created and topped with a expansive green roof to expand the open space of the park while still providing for car parking adjacent to Lake Shore Drive. Originally known as Daley Bicentennial Plaza, it was named for the late Mayor Richard J. Daley who had died that year after holding the mayor’s office for 21 years.

Innovative for its time, the membrane between the concrete structure and the rooftop plantings began to fail after some 25 years of use. Infiltration of water had caused cracks and spaulding within the concrete structure, necessitating a rebuild of the garage roof. The Chicago Children’s Museum had planned a replacement structure for the park’s subterranean field house located along Randolph Street, and while approved, had to abandon the plan after funding dried up during the recent recession.

340 on the Park (340 East Randolph Street) rising over Daily Bicentennial Plaza in 2006.
Shawn Ursini
340 on the Park now overlooks Maggie Daley Park
Shawn Ursini

After a lease of the city owned garage was negotiated, funding was then allocated for the replacement green roof which became Maggie Daley Park, featuring a rolling terrain crafted from foam blocks to reduce the weight of soil on the structure. The park also features a new playground as well as an ice skating ribbon and rock climbing walls, activating the space.

Maggie Daley Park
Shawn Ursini
Rock climbing walls and skating ribbon
Shawn Ursini

n the 1980’s Lakeshore Drive was rerouted eastward, creating new green spaces to the east as well as a connecting segment of the park reaching the Chicago River. The old alignment of the roadway was then transformed into Cancer Survivors Garden as well as a new neighborhood park to the north within the Lakeshore East Development, now filling in the remaining open lands from the Illinois Central’s former railroad yards. The next building to begin in Lakeshore East will be the 93 story Vista tower designed by Studio Gang and positioned right on the old alignment of Lakeshore Drive.

Old alignment of Lakeshore Drive and the industrialized mouth of the river in the mid 1900's.
Grant Park Conservancy
Cancer Survivors Garden within the old alignment of Lake Shore Drive
Shawn Ursini

As the city was in the midst of a rapid decline in population during the second half of the twentieth century, downtown began hollowing out as businesses followed the flight to the suburbs. During the 1980s, Grant Park was essentially left for dead — fountains had stopped working, graffiti often adorned the crumbling balustrades and gardens were not maintained. Medians along Congress Parkway became de facto parking lots, tearing up the soil with tire ruts while trash was often strewn across the grounds. Where trash cans did exist, they often were rusting steel 55 gallon drums. Trees which had died due to the Dutch Elm Disease outbreaks were not replaced, leaving barren stretches of muddy grass where rows of trees now exist. Open surface parking was located at the north end of the park where Millennium Park now stands, while additional surface parking was spread in front of the Field Museum.

Surface Parking in front of the Field Musuem, before the realignment of South Lake Shore Drive
Bob O'Neill/Grant Park Conservancy
Park conditions near the Field Museum in the 1980's
Bob O'Neill/Grant Park Conservancy
Front of the Field Museum today after the creation of the Museum Campus through moving Lake Shore Drive
Shawn Ursini
Pedestrian passageways in the museum campus
Shawn Ursini

A collation of people interested in rebuilding the park formed the Grant Park Conservancy, and in cooperation with a reformed park district, had replanted many of the missing trees, repaired the gardens and collaborated on infrastructure repairs. As the park was restored, it became well used again after largely being ignored.

Across from the Chicago Hilton on Michigan Avenue in the 1980's. The condition of the park was so bad that the Hilton actually considered moving to a new building.
Bob O'Neill/Grant Park Conservancy
Elements of the park in disrepair in the 1980's
Bob O'Neill/Grant Park Conservancy
Across from the Hilton today
Shawn Ursini
Across from the Hilton today
Shawn Ursini
Across from the Hilton today
Shawn Ursini

The last portion of Grant Park to be filled in as new green space was Millennium Park, opening in 2004 and covering a open parking lot and railyard servicing the Randolph Street Metra Electric and South Shore Lines. The complex park design would stack parking and the rail station below a deck of green space, much like what had happened with Daily Bicentenial Plaza to the east in 1976.

What began as a simpler park design then morphed into a grander plan as the philanthropic donations brought in the designs of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the Cloud Gate sculpture and the Crown Fountain. While the construction was widely criticized for delays and raising costs, the park that was delivered was a significant upgrade from what was initially proposed. Construction debts were then paid in full with the lease of the subterranean parking garage which also provided for $128 million in additional revenue sent to the rest of the city’s park system.

North end of Grant Park before Millenium Park was constructed. This is the site of the Crown Fountain today.
Bob O'Neill/Grant Park Conservancy
Crown Fountain today
Shawn Ursini
Looking north from Monroe Street in the before Millennium Park. Note the Blue Cross Blue Shield Headquarters under cosntruction in the background, dating this photo to about 1996.
Bob O'Neill/Grant Park Conservancy
Looking north from Monroe Street today
Shawn Ursini
Along Randolph Street before Millennium Park
Bob O'Neill/Grant Park Conservancy
Rebuilt peristyle near Randolph and Michigan today
Shawn Ursini
Millennium Park in 2006
Shawn Ursini

Grant Park today is heavily used, is seeing an unprecedented amount of requests for events and has spurred millions of dollars in new residential and hotel development right along side it. Revenue from events such as the NFL Draft and Lollapoloza funnel money not just into Grant Park for continued enhancements, but also other parks throughout the city. As cities become evermore competitive, parks are increasingly seen as something that need to offer unique spaces that engage people, and Chicago’s "front yard" certainly does just that.

Shawn Ursini
Shawn Ursini
Michigan Avenue along Grant Park is now branded as the 'Cultural Mile'
Shawn Ursini
Shawn Ursini
Shawn Ursini

Bob O'Neill, President of the Grant Park Conservancy, assisted with providing images and insight into the conditions of the park over the last three decades.

History of Grant Park [Chicago Public Library]

Interstate Industrial Exposition Building [Chicagology]

Art Institute History [Art Institute of Chicago]

Grant Park Timeline [Grant Park Conservancy]

10 Years after Daley’s Meigs Field Raid [Chicago Tribune]

Grant Park

337 E Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60601 (312) 742-3918 Visit Website