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Sports fans nationwide know Soldier Field as the home of the Chicago Bears. For decades its signature columns provided an iconic backdrop for gridiron matches. But few realize that the stadium has been much more than that. Soldier Field: A Stadium and Its City explores how this amphitheater evolved from a public war memorial into a majestic arena that helped define Chicago.
Chicago Tribune staff writer Liam Ford led the reporting on the stadium’s controversial 2003 renovation—and simultaneously found himself unearthing a dramatic history. As he tells it, the tale of Soldier Field truly is the story of Chicago, filled with political intrigue and civic pride. Designed by Holabird and Roche, Soldier Field arose through a serendipitous combination of local tax dollars, City Beautiful boosterism, and the machinations of Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson. The result was a stadium that stood at the center of Chicago’s political, cultural, and sporting life for nearly sixty years before the arrival of Walter Payton and William “The Refrigerator” Perry.
Ford describes it all in the voice of a seasoned reporter: the high school football games, track and field contests, rodeos, and even NASCAR races. Photographs, including many from the Chicago Park District’s own collections, capture these remarkable scenes: the swelling crowds at ethnic festivals, Catholic masses, and political rallies. Few remember that Soldier Field hosted Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr., Judy Garland and Johnny Cash—as well as Grateful Dead’s final show.
Soldier Field captures the dramatic history of Chicago’s stadium on the lake and will captivate sports fans and historians alike.
About the Author
Liam T. A. Ford, a fifth-generation Chicagoan, returned home after a stint at the Advertiser in Montgomery, Alabama, and joined the City News Bureau, eventually becoming its lead City Hall reporter. Since 1998 he has covered housing, politics, regional development, and the Chicago Park District for the Chicago Tribune. This is his first book.
Read an Excerpt
SOLDIER FIELDA STADIUM AND ITS CITY
By LIAM T. A. FORD
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2009 Liam T. A. Ford
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBorn Republican, Adopted by Democrats
Buildings like Soldier Field can become so much a part of a city that's it hard to imagine their absence. Before the stadium rose south of the Field Museum, few would have suggested that Chicago government should own and run a place that would compete with the city's private ballparks and convention arenas.
The Progressive ideas Burnham represented meshed in many cities with a blossoming interest in organized sports and great gatherings that brought city folks—many of them recent immigrants or former farm dwellers—together in the way small-town celebrations had in the previous century. Measures of a city's success at the beginning of the twentieth century included how well it provided for the health and well-being of its youth and how captivating it made its parades, civic celebrations, and public pageants. Football, rugby, and even polo teams were organized in Chicago neighborhoods not just for physical exercise but as ways of creating community. City leaders eagerly encouraged mass gatherings sponsored by civic groups with close but sometimes hidden ties to their own political groups, like Mayor William Hale Thompson's "Chicago Boosters." The aim, for "Big Bill" and others, was to "Americanize" the waves of new immigrants, while justifying to city natives the increased spending—and increased taxes—that inevitably accompanied the City Beautiful improvements.
In Chicago, as in other cities, enthusiasm for more and better parks, sports facilities, and pageants led to the building of an immense stadium only because all of the city's most powerful political factions saw that they could gain something from supporting—and claiming credit for—the arena. What Progressive backers of the Burnham Plan failed to anticipate or willfully ignored was that the push to build a new Chicago would inevitably increase the power of the type of politicians they had been crusading against for decades. As the city was transformed in the first four decades of the century, spending on projects like Soldier Field fueled the political machines Progressives had set out to destroy.
At the end of the Great War, the Republican Party was split into three factions, one of which endorsed Thompson's Democratic rival in the 1919 mayoral election. The Democratic Party was similarly split, with good-government types following former mayors Carter Harrison II and Edward Dunne, and supporters of the ascendant machine following Irish boss Roger Sullivan. Yet despite the enmity between Republicans like Thompson and Democrats like Edward Kelly, the South Park Commission decided to override the letter of the Burnham Plan and the principle of a lakefront "forever open, clear, and free" and to endorse Thompson's proposal and hold a competition to design a new stadium. Chicago's unreformed politicians, Republican and Democrat, were tired of spending restrained by wartime austerity. Chicago needed new streets. It needed new parks. It needed new lakefront beaches. Its people needed jobs—especially, though this wasn't usually said in public, its political people.
The politicians' lust for new fountains of patronage could hardly be contained. Almost as strong, though, was the public impulse to commemorate, in a lasting way, the Chicago men who had lost their lives in the Great War. Thompson, cribbing from proposals by several civic groups, realized he could bring the two forces together in the concrete form of a stadium.
Thompson originally put forward a plan for a stadium that, if built, would have rivaled the much-ridiculed Il Vittoriano monument in Rome, better known as "the wedding cake." Thompson's proposal was ambitious, "twice the size of the Yale Bowl," with the cost, about $10 million, to be paid for by "public subscription" and construction to be completed within two years. The Herald and Examiner, which reported the mayor's proposal in glowing terms, took partial credit for the proposal itself. Chicago parks already had many prominent war memorials, including the statue of Civil War Union general John A. Logan, the originator of Memorial Day, at the south end of Grant Park. Nor was the idea of memorial buildings entirely new, though it had become more popular since the Great War. A few stadiums, such as Harvard Stadium at Soldiers Field in Boston, had been built before the war as memorials to war dead. But after the Great War, a rise in popular sports, combined with a movement to create useful buildings as memorials, resulted in scores of stadiums being built across the country. Federal officials, notably chief Labor Department spokesman George W. Coleman, urged the creation of "living memorials" both to help remember the dead and to provide employment for returning soldiers.
Even as they claimed credit for the scheme, Thompson and the Herald and Examiner were drawing on a proposal that had grown out of months of back-and-forth among civic leaders. It's hard to determine who came up with the idea first, but all through the late winter and spring of 1919, Chicago's most prestigious architects had been drawing up schemes for war memorials. In late February, Edward H. Bennett, Burnham's collaborator on the 1909 Plan of Chicago, had hatched an idea for a giant triumphal arch in Grant Park, leading to an open-air stadium. (He had first proposed a stadium in Grant Park, north of 11th Street, before the war.) A few weeks later, Marshall and Fox, architects under contract to the South Park Commission, put forward their own proposal, which the Tribune and other newspapers praised highly.
The Marshall and Fox idea appears to have been a brainchild of the memorial committee put forward by former Judge John Barton Payne, the Democratic president of the South Park Commission (the board was, however, controlled by Republicans unfriendly to Thompson). In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Grant Park often had been used as a staging area for immense military shows. Payne alluded to that when he speculated about what the proposed arena could be used for: "The stadium, of course, can be used for military maneuvers, out of door theatricals, intercollegiate meets, football games, and I don't see any reason why we could not have the world series of baseball played there," raved Payne, who later would join Woodrow Wilson's cabinet while still serving on the park board. "The place would be an ideal one for an Olympic meet and for any huge out of door theatrical performance."
Though Payne may not have been the first to think of putting a grand, permanent stadium on the lakefront—possibly on the site used for the temporary stadium since 1913, just northwest of the Field Museum—his vision of its uses came closest to the expansive vision the South Park Commission proclaimed when decided to build the stadium, and what actually came to pass at Soldier Field—except, of course, for the World Series.
Thompson leapt on the bandwagon, talking up the stadium wherever and whenever he could.
Tribune publisher Colonel Robert R. McCormick, Thompson's onetime ally, had begun to turn against his fellow Republican, and the Tribune had lent its support to Thompson's opponent in that year's mayoral primary. Given the animosity between the two, the paper might have been expected to oppose the stadium. But the sports palace had begun to catch the public's—and the Tribune's—imagination. As with other lakefront improvements, editors held their noses at the stink of Thompson's corruption and endorsed the stadium plan. In an editorial, the Tribune urged the South Park Commission:
If we are going to make Chicago a pleasant place to live in, a home fit for heroes to live in and not merely to fight for, we should be about the business of registering our intention in a substantial way. There is proposed a stadium for athletic games and out of door festivals in Grant Park. Most citizens will be in favor of a project that is to serve the purpose of the greatest number. Grant Park should be a vast forum of the people. It has its Art Institute, its museum, and its recreation grounds. It should have a great Amphitheatre where many thousands may gather for whatever purpose seems desirable.
When the city council approved ordinances clearing the way for lakefront development, aldermen supporting the plan touted the new stadium as one of four big selling points. Hundreds of acres of new lakefront parks, an aquarium, a new passenger terminal (which was never built), and the stadium were to be "Chicago's quartet of world beaters." This grand hoped-for status reflected a tendency in Chicago after the Great Fire to want always to be or to have the best, the first, the biggest, the fastest growing, whatever the category.
Thompson, accompanied by members of his Chicago Boosters club, brought his garish stadium proposal to the South Park Commission. In a letter to the board, Thompson hinted at some of the more compelling reasons why city fathers wanted stadium built—reasons that reappear to this day whenever a new stadium is proposed:
Not only would the stadium give the people of Chicago a great deal of enjoyment, but it would attract thousands of visitors. It would be centrally located and could be used by other cities as well as Chicago for post-season games and for holding world championship contests.
In referring to "world championship contests," Thompson alluded to the city's hopes to host the Olympic Games, a goal Chicago promoters claimed the stadium would help to fulfill. Though today we might think of football, baseball, and basketball as America's great sports, in the early twentieth century, track and field competitions captivated the U.S. public and were popular in most European countries as well.
"Here, south of the new Field Museum and within ten minutes of the Loop, will be held athletic contests, great military and civic parades and spectacles, which 100,000 persons can witness," the Chicago Herald and Examiner declared. The Chicago American was even more effusive:
More than two thousand years ago a great stadium was erected on the hills of Olympia.... One Milo, bodyguard of an emperor, held his little finger so rigid that none could bend or even move it; another, Melamcomas, stood two days with arms outstretched. They were heroes.... Chicago is now to have a great revival of the games which promises to out-Olympia the Athenians.
The American's boosterish ardor echoed the hopes of many Chicagoans, declaring that the Grant Park stadium could help lead the way toward a revival of athleticism among Chicago's—and the nation's—youth.
In the spring and summer of 1919, it seemed as though all Chicago was backing the stadium, and the rest of the South Park proposals. At the end of May, the South Park Commission unanimously voted to have its general superintendent draw up detailed plans for the construction of a stadium. Initially, everyone assumed it would go up just north of the Field Museum, as laid out in the 1919 city council legislation approving Burnham-inspired lakefront development. But Thompson and the South Park commissioners were mindful of recent court battles. To sidestep controversies over what could be put up in Grant Park, Thompson sought legal advice. One newspaper reported that "under the law no buildings can be erected in Grant Park, but the Mayor has been advised by attorneys a stadium is not a building." The commissioners decided not to risk litigation but to build the new stadium south of the Field Museum instead.
With the site selected, attention turned to choosing a design. Six architectural firms were invited to draw up plans for the stadium: Marshall and Fox, Holabird and Roche, Edward H. Bennett, Coolidge and Hodgson, Zachary T. Davis, and Jarvis Hunt. For several months before the competition kicked off, the park commissioners, city leaders, and the architects had haggled over requirements and restrictions. Thompson, among others, had hoped for the largest stadium ever built, seating 150,000 and "outdoing anything ... that the Romans had ever built." Dwight Perkins, the South Park Commission's advisor on the competition, took a close look at the area of landfill—at the time still mostly underwater—and quietly raised some doubts about that ambition: "There is not room enough in the plat selected for so large a number," he wrote in a letter to the commissioners. Perkins recommended a maximum capacity of about 100,000 people—the figure that was cited throughout Soldier Field's history until the field was reconfigured in the 1970s. (Standing-room crowds could greatly exceed this number.) The size of the playing field—"unusually large, larger than any Stadium ever built, so far as I am able to discover," Perkins noted—itself limited the seating. So even if the stadium failed to outrank the Yale Bowl in seating capacity, its gargantuan arena would impress spectators.
When it came time for the six architects to submit their designs, the South Park commissioners treated the competition as seriously as a medieval coronation ceremony. The request for proposals went through several revisions, with a final letter going out from the commission in August 1919. All of the architects invited to compete were renowned builders and artists, many of whom—including Fox and Bennett—had gained their reputation from their association with Burnham. The commissioners wanted to make sure no one could accuse the advisory panel of any bias. If the stadium were to be taken seriously as a new mecca for American sport and society, the design must be chosen fairly and the construction must satisfy the highest standards.
Because a trained eye might be able to differentiate a Marshall and Fox schematic from one by Edward H. Bennett, the letter to competitors warned, "No design will be considered the drawings or wrappers of which bear any note or mark revealing their authorship." Perkins arranged tight security for the submitted proposals, securing them in a vault at the Art Institute. The letter to competitors appears detailed for the times: "The proposed stadium shall consist of an open amphitheatre for spectators surrounding (wholly or partially) an arena. It shall be so arranged that large numbers of people may view processions, pageants, military maneuvers, concerts, out door dramatics, athletic contests, track meets, horse shows, fairs, winter sports, ice carnivals, etc., etc." (Today, by contrast, its eight pages would hardly be enough space for Chicago Park District attorneys to clear their throats.) The Tribune wrote on August 22, 1919, "Beauty is the most necessary attribute for the Grant park stadium to be submitted by six architects to a jury appointed by the south park board, according to an announcement yesterday.... It is hoped to bring the next Olympics to Chicago."
The rules of the competition specified a massive playing field: "An arena, the longest dimension not less than 1,000 feet," with a one-third-mile running track thirty feet wide, suitable for modification for bicycle races. (There was no acknowledgment of the possibility that such distances might make it had for some in the stands to see what was going on.) In addition to its use for various sports and festivals, the stadium was to be a showplace for America's military might. Entrances onto the field were to be designed "for incoming and outgoing processions so that armies may approach at one end, maneuver within the stadium and leave at the opposite end." An ancient purpose for outdoor arenas was drama; Chicagoans of the early twentieth century felt themselves in competition not just with the modern-day Europe but with the Greek and Roman founders of Western civilization, and so concluded that the stadium needed a theater space. One end of the stadium was thus to be convertible into an outdoor stage—the origin of the rounded south end of Soldier Field.
The north end of the stadium was to be south of the Field Museum, its south end at 16th Street. A detailed statement of the physical requirements sent to the architects in June 1919 shows the maximum size of the stadium as about 1,200 feet long by 450 feet wide. The last of several such letters sent by the commission points out a topographical detail that would prove essential to the character of the stadium as it was eventually built: the site, created as landfill in the shallows of Lake Michigan, slopes down, from thirty-one feet above lake level at what was originally the north end of Soldier Field to only fifteen feet above the lake at its south end.
Excerpted from SOLDIER FIELD by LIAM T. A. FORD Copyright © 2009 by Liam T. A. Ford. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List of Figures
Introduction Chicago Challenges the World
Part 1 Getting It Built
Chapter 1 Born Republican, Adopted by Democrats
Chapter 2 Soldier Field and the Democratic Ascendancy
Part 2 A Stadium for All Chicago
Chapter 3 A Game for Our Youth: Amateur Football at Soldier Field
Chapter 4 Chicago’s Olympic Legacy
Chapter 5 A Stage for Acceptable Dissent
Chapter 6 The City’s Altar
Chapter 7 Military Marches, Music, and an Arsonist Cow
Chapter 8 Americans All: Culture in an Epic Space
Chapter 9 A Family Place
Chapter 10 New Religious and Political Movements in a Classic Space
Part 3 The Fall and Rise of Soldier Field
Chapter 11 Celebrations in an Era of Decline
Chapter 12 Amateur Sports Founder at a Fading Stadium
Chapter 13 Professional Sports in a Changing Era
Chapter 14 The Bears, the Stadium’s Savior
Chapter 15 A New Century, a New Stadium