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 History of Navy Pier - Chicago

Navy Pier has been a Chicago landmark since it first opened in 1916. Originally designed as both a shipping and recreational facility, the Pier also served as a military training site during two world wars, a venue for concerts and exhibitions, and the temporary home for a once-fledgling University of Illinois’ Chicago campus.

Navy Pier is a large pier on Lake Michigan close to Chicago's downtown. Originally known as the Municipal Pier nr 2, it is one of two piers called for in Daniel Burnham's 1909 Chicago plan.


Construction started May 1914 and in 1916 it was opened to the public. At the time it was the world's largest pier.  Navy Pier was originally built to serve Lake Michigan freighters and provide transportation to other cities on the Great Lakes, as well as for recreational purposes. The Municipal Pier was successfully attracting both visitors and ships. It was also temporarily used as a military facility during the first world war.


By the end of the 1920s, the Navy Pier's success started to decline. The introduction of cars and the opening of movie theaters created more competition for the Pier. Shipping started to decline in the 1930s due to the depression and the competition of transportation by trucks.

Navy Pier

In 1927 the pier was renamed Navy Pier in honor of World War I veterans.  In 1941, Navy Pier was converted to military use and used throughout World War II. From 1946 to 1964, it was a college campus. In 1965 the university moved to its new location and the Navy Pier started to decay.



After a lull in the 1970’s, Navy Pier was revitalized and, today, it is a multi-million dollar convention, cultural and recreation center and Chicago’s most visited attraction.

The first step in the redevelopment of the Navy Pier was the 1976 restoration by Jerome R. Butler, Jr. of the Auditorium building at the eastern end of the pier. One year later it was designated a Chicago Landmark. Another step to the redevelopment of the Navy Pier was taken in 1989, when the city of Chicago and the State of Illinois installed the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition authority. At the same time they committed 150 million dollar for reconstruction of the pier as a recreational center. The renovation by Benjamin Thompson & associates started in 1992 and was completed in 1994. The result is a very successful recreational center next to Chicago's downtown area. With many attractions and 50 acres of parks and gardens It attracts more than 8 million visitors each year.

Headhouse & Auditorium

The two major buildings on the Navy Pier, Headhouse and Auditorium - both designed by the architect Charles Summer Frost and constructed in 1916 - have survived its ups and downs.

The most western building, a brick and terra cotta building with two prominent towers is the Navy Pier Headhouse. The name was derived from the area, which at the time was known as the Headlands. Each tower housed a huge 2-million liter tank for the fire sprinkler system. The Headhouse is now home to Chicago's children museum. At the western side of the building is the recent 19acre Gateway Park, featuring a modern, computerized granite fountain with 240 jets.

At the other end of the pier is the Auditorium, also known as the Hall. This beautiful building with a magnificent Grand Ballroom measures 138 ft by 150 ft (42m x 48m) and has a 100ft (30m) high half-domed ceiling.