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The Chicago Traveler

Soldier Field

by Matt B on November 5th, 2007

The leaves have been falling along with the temperatures here, and that means one thing to many Chicagoans: football. Soldier Field on Lake Shore Drive is home to “Da Bears” and has a bit of an odd look to it… and a just as equally odd history to go with it.

Soldier Field

Completed in 1924, Municipal Grant Park Stadium was built as a public, multipurpose sports venue and was modeled after the Parthenon, matching the adjacent Field Museum’s Greco-Roman design. One year later, the name was changed to honor American military personnel that fought in World War I.

Soldier Field was the site of many major events long before the Chicago Bears came to play there. In 1926, the 28th International Eucharistic Congress gathered there, attracting hundreds of thousands of clergy and laymen from around the world. Later that same year, the field was host to the Annual Army-Navy Game before an estimated crowd of 110,000. (The game ended in a tie.) In ‘27, the Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney heavyweight championship rematch (the infamous “Long Count” fight) was attended by 104,000 fans paying a record $2.6 million. The stadium and all-time college football attendance record was set on November 16, 1929, when Notre Dame and USC played in front of nearly 113,000 fans. The largest sporting crowd was 115,000 for the ‘37 Austin-Leo high-school football championship game.

Chicago Bears

So where were the Chicago Bears during all this? Well, they had been playing at Wrigley Field since 1921 actually. (In fact, the Bears were formerly known as the Staleys and had changed their name as a tribute to the Chicago Cubs.) However, in 1970, the NFL ruled that all teams must play in stadiums that seated more than 50,000 fans, and the Bears had to find themselves a new home. On September 19, 1971, that new home became Soldier Field. However, Bears’ owner George Halas had no intentions of staying there very long. After almost 50 years, the structure was definitely showing its age, and the stadium just wasn’t equipped to host professional football games.

Halas (nicknamed “Papa Bear” and “Mr. Everything”) expressed his concerns about the building and announced that the team would consider constructing a new stadium in suburban Arlington Heights. Mayor Richard J. Daley told him they would have to change their name to the “Arlington Heights Bears.” Jonathan Alter captures their conversation in his book Chicago’s Cubs:

I think that’s fine, George. You’re a businessman. Do what you have to do. By the way, our lawyers say that you can’t take the name ‘Chicago’ with you out there. We’d have to take you to court. That could take years. I wonder how many people will come out to see the ‘Arlington Heights Bears’? I wonder how excited the network people will be about broadcasting the ‘Arlington Heights Bears’? You’re a fine businessman, George. You make the call.

Soldier Field So in 1978, the Chicago Bears agreed to stay in Soldier Field, and in exchange, the stadium underwent several renovations, including new individual seats to replace the wooden benches; a bowl-shape to replace the venue’s original horseshoe-shape; and new skyboxes, press boxes, concession areas, and restrooms. (Astroturf had replaced the field’s grass back in ’71 when the Bears moved in, but natural grass would return later in ’88.)

Things went well for both the Chicago Bears and Soldier Field for a few years. In 1984, Soldier Field was listed in the National Register of Historic Places and was later designated a National Historic Landmark. In ‘85, the Chicago Bears had a remarkable football season, concluding in a Super Bowl victory on January 26, 1986, making household names of running back Walter Payton, linebacker Mike Singletary, quarterback Jim McMahon, defensive tackle William “Refrigerator” Perry, and coach Mike Ditka. (Anyone remember the Super Bowl Shuffle?) During the late ‘80s, more and more football teams were sharing revenues with their hosting stadiums, but the Bears’ lease with Soldier Field (i.e., the Chicago Park District) did not maximize their financial potential. So, for the next several years, Chicago was buzzing with talks about an alternative or new stadium, including proposals of a domed venue.

In ’95, the Bears, led by their team president Michael McCaskey (grandson of “Papa Bear” Halas), became much more aggressive in their hunt for a new stadium. Threats and offers went back and forth between the team and Mayor Richard M. Daley. The team purchased options on land in the suburbs, then made plans to build in Gary, Indiana; Daley responded with a $156-million deal. McCaskey continued to boast their Gary plan; the mayor offered a $395-million proposal. Indiana rejected the Bears’ plan; Daley suggested they share Comiskey Park with the White Sox. Hirings, firings, back and forth, Chicago began to wonder if anything would ever really get done.

Soldier Field

On November 22, 2000, the City of Chicago and the Chicago Bears formally unveiled their plan for the new stadium at Soldier Field. The $587-million plan involved gutting out the old place and building a whole new stadium inside the shell of the old venue, preserving the exterior walls and columns. The plan also included the creation of parkland around the stadium, a new parking garage, and several modern amenities. Most importantly, the Bears would finally be receiving the majority of the revenue from advertising, concessions, parking, and luxury boxes.

The new structure opened in 2003, bringing plenty of mixed reactions from Chicagoans. From the inside, the new Soldier Field looks and feels great. New washrooms, new concessions, new seating, better views. However, from the outside, Soldier Field looks… well, awful. The seating structure rises far above the old colonnades, giving the appearance that a UFO landed in the stadium. The building has been nicknamed “the mistake on the lake” and “the eyesore on the Lake Shore.” Not to mention that the new stadium capacity (61,500) is the second-smallest in the NFL, and will become the smallest when the Indianapolis Colts move out of their RCA Dome in 2008. In fact, Soldier Field has changed so much from its original construction that it lost its designation as a National Historic Landmark in February of 2006.

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Photo credit: dgphilli, Somewhat Frank, Wikimedia, pdxsurreal, sgt fun, mk30

Soldier Field: 1410 S Museum Campus Dr; 312-235-7000
Bus # 12, 146

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POSTED IN: Architecture & Attractions, Sports and Recreation

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