By Benjamin Warsinske
As urban planners, it is fascinating to watch “places for people” adapt and evolve over time. Chicago’s Historic Navy Pier is getting ready to celebrate its 100 year anniversary in 2016 and continues to be the number one leisure destination in the Midwest, welcoming nearly nine million visitors annually. At HHF, we strive to develop places for people that will encourage community interaction, business growth, and gathering places for years to come. Our work in historic preservation throughout Hawai‘i preserves and protects facilities and spaces that have significance within the community.
In 1909, Daniel Burnham created the “Master Plan of Chicago,” which originally envisioned five piers. The plan was later revised to one, 1.5 mile long recreational pier with freight and passenger ship docking facilities being commissioned near the mouth of the Chicago River. Construction began in 1914 and cost $4.5 million dollars. When completed in 1916, it was the largest pier in the world. It was originally built to handle shipping as well as be an entertainment destination. As a local example to Honolulu, Aloha Tower is similar, as it is a shopping and destination hub located along Honolulu Harbor, mixed in with the shipping industry, but at a smaller scale.
The pier has undergone several main uses through its 100 year lifespan. Its first use was to be a commercial pier and entertainment destination. Shortly after being constructed, in 1917 and 1918, the Pier housed many Navy and Army personnel, the Red Cross, and Home Defense units. While automobiles were beginning to wreak havoc on the package freight and passenger steamboat industries of Lake Michigan, the Pier proved to be much more successful as a public gathering place. In the 1920’s the Pier expanded to include a streetcar line, theater, and emergency room. In 1927 the Pier was officially named Navy Pier in honor of the Naval personnel that served during World War I.
The second use of the Pier was controlled by the United States Navy. In August 1941, Navy Pier was closed to the public to provide the Navy much needed space for technical training. In five short months, the Pier was fully converted to a Navy training center designated to accommodate up to 10,000 service personnel. Classes began for aviation machinist mates, metalsmiths, and diesel mechanics just six days prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Navy’s air group training arm docked a pair of converted flattops at the Pier, the USS Wolverine (IX-64) and the USS Sable (IX-81), to use as freshwater training carriers. During the war, about 15,000 pilots received carrier-landing training.
After the war, Navy Pier was returned to the City of Chicago and its third use began. The City allowed the University of Illinois to use the facilities for a two-year undergraduate program primarily serving returning veterans. During this time, Navy Pier was also the site of a series of public events. The International Exhibitions of the early 1960s drew attractions from around the world.
For the next 24 years, Navy Pier was considered underutilized. Navy Pier was transformed once again into a public gathering place. In 1989, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority took control over the Pier. Major renovation and construction began in 1994 and Navy Pier reopened to the public in July of 1995. At a cost of $200 million dollars, the layout included fast-food restaurants, shops, a ballroom, concert stage, and convention exhibition halls.
The storied history of one of Chicago’s most treasured landmarks shows the adaptability of a space and how with imagination mixed in with strong planning, a place can be reinvigorated.
7 Fun Facts About Chicago’s Navy Pier
- Navy Pier was designed by architect Charles Sumner Frost and opened to the public in 1916 as “Municipal Pier” – the only pier to combine a shipping dock with public entertainment.
- Navy Pier once housed a prison for draft dodgers during World War I.
- During World War II, the U.S. Navy used the Pier as a training center for pilots. One of those pilots who qualified for military service was George H. W. Bush.
- The Ferris wheel is 150-feet high, runs year round (weather permitting) and has a maximum capacity of 300 passengers
- The Pier and its grounds encompass 50 acres of parks, gardens, shops, restaurants, and other shore entertainment
- In 1977, City Hall designated Navy Pier as a Chicago Landmark.
- In the winter, many Chicago residents love coming down to the Pier for perch fishing.
 “About Us | Navy Pier,” accessed August 11, 2015, https://navypier.com/about-us/.
 “Navy Pier History,” n.d., https://goo.gl/YiBPCO.
 “About Us | Navy Pier.”
Benjamin Warsinske is a Senior Planner who recently moved to Chicago, from Hawai‘i! He has experience in resort residential communities, strategic planning, and federal planning. He takes a keen interest in evaluating and identifying potential process improvement through workflow analysis, resulting in a more efficient and higher quality product for the client.