Grant Park is as old as Chicago itself, and its history is one of civic vision, tenacity, and patience. Built and expanded over the course of more than a century, with input from some of the foremost American architects and urban planners, the park is a multifaceted testament to the eclectic spirit of Chicago.
Aerial view from 1948 looking southwest over the former parking area that is now the site of Daley Bicentennial Plaza.
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The Park Pre-Construction
In 1836, a strip of Chicago’s lakeshore between Madison Street and 11th Street was designated as park land, with a mandate that it remain “forever open, clear, and free of any buildings, or other obstructions whatever.” Without the funds to prevent devastating erosion on the site, in 1852 the city made a deal with the Illinois Central Railroad, allowing the company to erect a train trestle on the lake shore provided it also built a breakwater to protect the shoreline. A subsequent decades-long filling effort, which in part used charred debris from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, built the shoreline out past the rail trestle into Lake Michigan, greatly expanding the open but largely unplanned area then known as Lake Park.
In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition. Lake Park was briefly considered as a site for the event, but ultimately only World’s Congresses Hall, used for meetings devoted to promoting an understanding between people of different cultures and religions, was constructed. Under the terms of the agreement, the Art Institute of Chicago took over the building at the conclusion of the Exposition. The Art Institute is now one of Chicago’s most popular attractions, and remains one of several exceptions to the “forever open, clear, and free” rule.
In 1901, Lake Park was renamed Grant Park, in honor of U.S. President and Illinois native Ulysses S. Grant. Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett’s larger 1909 Plan of Chicago proposed transforming Grant Park into a series of large-scale civic spaces, oriented axially and with a new natural history museum at their center. The planned buildings became the focal points of a legal battle led by Aaron Montgomery Ward over the site’s status as perpetually protected park land. Since the 1890s, Ward had been suing the City to keep circuses, barns, shacks, and other structures out of the park, and he eventually succeeded in forcing the Field Museum to relocate to a site just south of the park.
With the museum moved, Bennett was chosen to provide a new design for the site. Construction of his Beaux-Arts-inspired park began in 1915. Replacing the museum as the centerpiece of the park was Buckingham Fountain, a 5-acre plaza featuring a fountain that is still one of the largest basin fountains in the world. Following the 1927 dedication of the fountain, construction slowed, and though additional improvements to the park were made in association with the 1933-34 World’s Fair, parts were left unfinished.
The 28 acres north of Monroe Street and east of Columbus Street were used primarily as a rail yard and surface parking until 1953, when the Chicago Park District moved the parking lots to an underground facility on the site. In 1976, these below-grade lots were covered over by Daley Bicentennial Plaza, a multi-use recreational facility named in honor of longtime Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (1902-1976). In 1986, the reconfiguration of Lake Shore Drive opened up an additional 6.5 acres immediately to the east, which became a formal garden dedicated to cancer survivors and an open space nicknamed Peanut Park.
In 1997, the city constructed a deck over a section of the sunken rail corridor in Grant Park to create Millennium Park, a modern center for music, art, and landscape design. Open since 2004, the park now features elaborate gardens, art exhibitions, performance venues, a winter ice rink, and a year-round restaurant, as well as serving as the setting for Cloud Gate and Crown Fountain, works of public art that have become instantly recognizable Chicago icons.