Monday, November 18, 2013

McCormick Place Chicago -- November 18, 1953 & 1960

Economy of Scale -- McCormick Place and Chicago's beautiful lakefront


Two events on this date, spaced over a period of seven years, relate to one of the most controversial and ill-fated projects that the city of Chicago has undertaken, the conception and eventual construction of a large convention center that would reap millions and millions of convention dollars in a design that would appropriately capture the daring and ambitious image of the modern city.

On November 18, 1953 the South Side Planning Board, largely responsible for clearing seven square miles of slums on the city’s south side, put forth a proposal for a new Chicago convention hall in an area bounded by Cermak Road on the north, South Park Way on the East (today, Dr. Martin Luther King Drive), Michigan Avenue on the west and Twenty-Fifth Street on the south.

Ambitious plans for the site already existed in the form of a 700 feet by 700 feet structure designed by the Director of the Department of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  The center would be 100 feet high and would be supported by a “continuous web of steel trusswork to support the roof,” according to coverage in The Chicago Tribune.  There would be no interior columns in a hall with a seating capacity of 50,000 people.
The original proposal for the convention center by Mies van der Rohe 

Yeah, that would have been cool, huh?  But, of course, it didn’t happen.  Evicting 3,000 residents of the area and acquiring the land, alas, was thought at the time to require far too much time and money during a period when time was thought to be crucial. 

In an editorial on May 12, 1955 The Tribune opined, “The time element alone is sufficient cause to reject this proposal.  Condemnation of a site would consume five years, probably, and delay construction that long.  It would also burden the project with land costs estimated as high as 15 million dollars, which would make it financially impossible.”

The argument for saving valuable time was an interesting one, given the fact that the voters of Cook County had approved a 15-million dollar bond issue for a convention hall on June 6, 1927, a referendum that was subsequently invalidated by the Illinois Supreme Court.  The convention center idea had appeared and reappeared ever since. 

North side interests favored constructing the huge hall north of the river, but ultimately the plan focused on a site at Twenty-Third Street and the lakefront.  In October of 1956 the Executive Director of the Chicago Convention Bureau, Chester Wilkins, asserted that time was of the essence in preparing the site. 

“Chicago this year is host to more conventions than at any time since the Century of Progress in 1933,” Mr. Witkins stated.  “However, we are finding ourselves in a more competitive position with other cities as the convention center of the country.  New York City is planning a new convention hall in 1956, and Detroit is beginning to offer new convention facilities for 1957.  This is all the more reason for expediting the convention and exposition center planned for Chicago’s lake front.” [Chicago  Tribune, October 6, 1955]

In 1956 the city was looking at hosting over one thousand conventions, bringing 1,250,000 conventioneers and their money to the city, a quarter-million person increase over 1955.  To get the new hall built, though, the city had to prevail in the courts.

The first of three suits regarding the convention hall was decided in favor of the city in early November of 1955.  It upheld the constitutionality of using fair and exposition fund money as backing for revenue bonds.  This was crucial to getting the place built because the court’s decision allowed the use of revenue from the convention center’s operation to pay off 34 million dollars of bonds sold to get the place built.  

The other suits related to the powers of the Metropolitan Fair and Exposition Authority and were also decided in the city’s favor.  Although there was some minor grumbling about a huge building on lakefront property owned by the park district, it was more than countered by the economics of the proposition.

By November of 1956 Illinois had purchased 20 million dollars of revenue bonds to get the project started and Colonel Henry Crown and Conrad Hilton stood ready to kick in significant bucks. 

Colonel Crown, who along with his family also owned the Empire State Building, said, “Both Conrad Hilton and I are of the considered opinion that a convention center in Chicago is mandatory if our city is to enjoy continued growth and maintain its status as the world’s foremost convention city . . . We are of the opinion that these 5 per cent tax-exempt securities constitute a prudent investment, particularly to substantial investors in higher tax brackets.” [Chicago Tribune, November 20, 1955]

1959 Construction in Progress (
By the middle of July, 1959 750 construction workers were laboring at the site, constructing a building that could hold six football fields, a convention cavern in which the Empire State Building could be laid sidewise. There would be a full service restaurant that seated 625, a self-service facility that operated three lines of food service, served 22 people a minute and would accommodate 750 diners.  Banquet facilities could feed 25,000 people in one sitting, and a theater would provide entertainment for 5,000, the largest theater in Chicago.

By early 1960 85 per cent of the available bookings for the following two years had already been sold.  “Thruout the year there will be a succession of shows which in effect will be a permanent world’s fair, an international market place,” The Tribune editorialized. [Chicago Tribune, November 17, 1960]

The east side promenade and cafe in 1961 

And on this date in 1960 the vast exhibition hall was dedicated.  500 well-heeled attendees from Chicago and beyond gathered for the ceremony and a cocktail party that followed. 

Major Lenox Lohr, the President of the Museum of Science and Industry and the first head of the Metropolitan Fair and Exposition Authority, opened the party with a demonstration of brand new General Electric technology, a fuel cell that produced electricity through the fusion of hydrogen and oxygen, pressing a button that activated spot lights directed at an American flag.   The Great Lakes Naval Training Station band played the National Anthem. 

The main speaker of the night was Arthur H. (Red) Motley, the president of the United States Chamber of Commerce and a member of President Eisenhower’s committee on export trade expansion, substituting for President-elect John F. Kennedy who was unable to attend.  “I don’t mind pinch hitting for Mr. Kennedy,” Mr. Motley said. “I knew he’d have to call on us Republicans for help, but I didn’t think he’d have to do it so soon.”

Then Mr. Motley really got the boiler up to full steam, continuing . . .

The activities of American business men, like those in this room tonight, will solve our problem.  They will seek and find opportunities for doing business all over the world.  That’s the way we’ve always done it and that’s the way we’ll continue to do it . . . McCormick Place – this is the American way – the growth of our great nation, the great state of Illinois, this great city, has come as a result of individual effort, not government effort.  McCormick Place symbolizes freedom of enterprise, individual enterprise.

As excitement built and the great building neared completion The Tribune trumpeted on May 21, 1960, “BUILT TO OUTLAST ROME’S GLORIES . . . The building will be larger than the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome and more durable than the Colosseum.  It is of fireproof steel and reinforced concrete construction, resting on 2,250 heavy H-beams, driven down to bedrock.  The exterior walls will have a larger sculpture area than the Temple of Karnak.”

Not quite.

It was just seven years from November 18, 1953 when the proposal for the Mies van der Rohe convention center on the south side was floated until November 18, 1960 when the great lakeside goliath was completed.  And it was just seven years from that spectacular night in 1960 to the disastrous night of January 16, 1967 when the joint went up in flames.

Starting over on a new Temple of Karnak (

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