Navy Pier, located on Lake Michigan, at the mouth of the Chicago River just east of Downtown Chicago, has been a Chicago landmark since it was opened to the public in 1916. The 3,300-foot-long1 pier was originally designed as a shipping and recreational facility, as Lake Michigan - the sixth-largest freshwater lake in the world - at that time diverted into the Mississippi River via the Illinois Waterway at the Chicago River. The Pier has also been used as a barracks and training site during both World Wars, as a concert venue and as an exhibition centre - and for 20 years served as the temporary home of the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois.
The History of Navy Pier
The Pier, originally known as Municipal Pier, was designed by Daniel Burnham and constructed under the supervision of architect Charles Sumner Frost. It cost $4.5 million and took two years to complete. The Pier was renamed Navy Pier in 1927, in honour of naval personnel who served in World War I.
During the first World War, the Pier housed Red Cross, Home Defense and military units. The Pier was used as a training facility by the US Navy and not accessible to the public during World War II. The Navy trained 15,000 pilots at the pier between 1917 and 1942, including former President, Airman George HW Bush. To this day, as many as 200 World War II planes remain at the bottom of Lake Michigan, casualties of training accidents.
Although the pier was originally designed as a shipping and entertainment facility, with the switch to motor freight delivery during the 1930s, shipping at the Pier declined. In 1942 the Navy vacated the pier, and the barracks and mess hall were converted into a two-year undergraduate school for the University of Illinois. This campus remained in use until 1965, when it moved to its Circle Campus location (now known as UIC) on the city's West Side.
In 1959, the St Lawrence Seaway - the world's longest deep-draught inland waterway - was opened, creating a link between Lake Michigan and the Atlantic Ocean, and Navy Pier became a great world shipping port. Around this time, the Pier was widened by 100 feet with the addition of the South Dock. To celebrate the Seaway's opening, the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry hosted the Chicago International Trade Fair from 3 - 18 July, 1959. The high point of the fair was the visit of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, who sailed the Seaway on the Royal Yacht Britannia, dropping anchor in Chicago Harbor. This was the first time in history that a reigning British monarch had visited the city of Chicago.
Eventually, as larger freighters began to arrive, it became necessary to relocate Chicago's port facility to Lake Calumet Harbor, a deeper harbour located at the mouth of the Calumet River on the city's Southeast Side.
The pier also continued to handle at least a dozen trade expositions each year, until the opening of McCormick Place Exposition Centre in 1960. Navy Pier also hosted trade expositions and conventions between the years of 1967 and 1971, during the reconstruction of McCormick Place, which had been destroyed by fire.
With the exception of the renovation of the Grand Ballroom for the city's US Bicentennial Celebration in 1976, and the hosting of Chicago Fest (now known as the Taste of Chicago) from 1977 to 1982, the pier was largely disused during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1989, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority was established to oversee Navy Pier and McCormick Place. The Authority made $150 million of renovations and improvements to Navy Pier, including the 150,000-seat outdoor Skyline Stage, exhibition and convention facilities, and numerous shops and restaurants. These improvements helped Navy Pier become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Chicago.
Geographical Layout of the Pier
The 19-acre Gateway Park, located just west of the pier, conveniently separates pedestrian and vehicular traffic, as well as adding aesthetic value with a computerised fountain which sends off jet streams of water of various heights and designs.
A 50-foot-wide dock running the entire length of the 3,300-foot-long pier, North Dock provides three on-pier traffic lanes to accommodate delivery lorries, taxis and buses, and private cars.
Navy Pier's Family Pavilion is home to the 50,000-square-foot Children's Museum, a 440-seat IMAX Theater, the Crystal Gardens - a 3,200-square-foot botanical park with a round centre for entertainment purposes, and a 40,000-square-foot food court which includes the famous Bubba Gump's Restaurant.
South Arcade, located just south of the Family Pavilion, is made up of shops, restaurants, and attractions, such as the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, modelled on the Swan Theatre in London.
Navy Pier Park
Located just east of the Family Pavilion is an outdoor park which features such attractions as a 150-feet-high ferris wheel, a musical carousel, and a miniature golf course.
Skyline Stage, opened in 1994, showcases musical performances including classical, pop, reggae, blues, jazz, and rock, as well as comedy and film. It is the only such arena located directly on the city's lakefront.
Dock Street, which runs the length of the pier's South Dock, provides a lovely promenade for pedestrians, bikers, and joggers. Numerous snack and drink stands are located along Dock Street, and during the spring and summer season, four performance areas feature live entertainment including jugglers, mimes, comedians, and musicians. Chicago's dinner cruise ships, including the Spirit of Chicago and the Odyssey, operate from Dock Street. During the summer months, there are fireworks displays on Wednesday and Saturday nights.
Festival Hall, located toward the east end of the pier, was designed to accommodate expositions, exhibits, and special events. The facility boasts 170,000 square feet of space and a full range of electrical and telecommunications services. The Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows, a permanent exhibit in the lower level of Festival Hall, is the only museum in the United States devoted entirely to the display of stained glass.
Festival Hall also includes 36 meeting rooms, perfect for groups which are too large for a hotel conference room yet too small for an expo centre. In addition to the Festival Hall, the pier's East End buildings have been renovated to provide meeting, convention, and banquet facilities. The Grand Ballroom, with its 80-foot-high domed ceiling, continues to host special performances and banquets as it has since 1916.
The pier's East End offers the best view in the city of the skyline and lakefront. It is the perfect place to spend a summer afternoon or for a sunset stroll, featuring period piece lighting, picnic tables, a collection of flags, and art and sculpture displays.
Visiting Navy Pier
600 E Grand Ave.
312-595-PIER (Outside Chicago 1-800-595-PIER)
Hours of Operation
Winter (November - May)
- 10am - 8pm Monday to Thursday
- 10am - 10pm Friday, Saturday
- 10am - 7pm Sunday
Summer (Memorial Day, last Monday in May – Labor Day, first Monday in September)
- 10am - 10pm Sunday to Thursday
- 10am - midnight Friday, Saturday
Autumn (4 September - 31 October)
- 10am - 9pm Monday to Thursday
- 10am - 11pm Friday, Saturday
- 10am - 7pm Sunday