With remarkable speed in April 2020, McCormick Place was converted into a temporary 1,750-bed facility for coronavirus patients. This was noble use was part of the city-wide campaign to protect Chicagoans against the coronavirus. The change from a convention use to medical use is notable, but the shift in focus from visitors to locals is equally significant. Perhaps the shift for McCormick Place to begin to serve Chicagoans is a foreshadowing of a better future use of Lakeside Center at McCormick Place which could focus on the needs, desires and quality-of-life of Chicagoans.
McCormick Place is a widely recognized, massive convention complex that many Chicagoans know but few Chicagoans ever visit. Lakeside Center at McCormick Place is located in an incredibly prime location on the Lake Michigan shore, specifically on the grounds of the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair on a promontory of land the stretches into the lake towards Northerly Island. From this point during the fair, a curving pedestrian bridge crossed the narrow mouth to the harbor and provided some of the most extraordinary views of the Chicago skyline. Called the Swift Bridge, it also included an integrated orchestra Swift Band Shell to allow Chicagoans to enjoy live music accompanied by summer lake breezes and great skyline views. In the summer of 1934, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented 125 concerts at the Swift Bridge and Band Shell.
Lakeside Center is the oldest building at McCormick Place and for years there have been rumblings from McCormick Place about plans to demolish it, and replace it with a new building. If Lakeside Center is functionally obsolete as a convention center, then the historic building and the lakefront land it sits on should be returned to the citizens of Chicago. The enormous interior spans and glass walls overlooking the lake make the building an ideal candidate for adaptive reuse for a people-centric use such as a flagship Chicago Park District Fieldhouse.
In July 2019, with almost no discussion, the Illinois State Senate approved an end-of-session bill that would allow the demolition of Lakeside Center at McCormick Place and the imposition of an expansive new $600 million tax on bars and restaurants across dozens of Chicago neighborhoods. A flurry of media attention and social media outrage brought this issue to light. Fortunately, Mayor Lori Lightfoot quickly released a statement of opposition to the proposal prior to the bill being taken up by the Illinois House of Representatives the following day where it was expected to pass. Exposed to light, the bill was hastily withdrawn. Despite the departure of Lori Healey as CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority in September 2019, it’s likely that plans to demolish Lakeside Center will surface again in the future.
The loss of Lakeside Center at McCormick Place, situated at 23 rd Street and the lakefront, would be tragic for Chicago. Lakeside Center is an extraordinary building by architecture firm C.F. Murphy and designers Gene Summers and Helmut Jahn, both acclaimed students of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at Illinois Institute of Technology. In Lakeside Center they took Mies van der Rohe’s design principles and the numerous published design studies by Mies, his office, and his graduate students and applied them on an enormous, convention hall scale. The construction of Lakeside Center was an amazing feat and is on par with the City’s other superstructures of that period, specifically the John Hancock Building and the Sears Tower. However, unlike the vertically oriented Hancock, Sears and Standard Oil Buildings, Lakeside Center is a mammoth horizontal long-span structure. The result was a monumental architectural achievement for Chicago which helped to reinforce Chicago’s title of convention city with the largest roof, convention hall and space-frame structure in the world.
Lakeside Center replaced an earlier McCormick Place convention building which was destroyed by a fire in 1967. This hastily constructed, windowless exposition hall dating from 1960 was dubbed the “mistake on the lake.”
The current modernist glass and steel Lakeside Center building was designed for the site and construction grand opening was held on January 3, 1971. The building has been featured in the book “Chicago’s Famous Buildings” in multiple editions by various editors and scholars over the past 50 years since its construction.
In addition to the building’s architectural significance, it presents a wonderful opportunity for a dynamic adaptive reuse that would return this prominent lakefront location to use by Chicagoans. This building could be an incredible museum site.
Additionally, the Lakeside Center could be easily retrofitted into a flagship Chicago Park District Fieldhouse and Mid-South Cultural Center to include the Arie Crown Theater for cultural and community events. A cultural use of Lakeside Center would be anchored by the Arie Crown Theater for cultural and community events. The Arie Crown Theater is one of the largest theaters in Chicago with seating for 4,250. Only the long-shuttered Uptown Theatre in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood has a larger seating capacity. Additionally, the Arie Crown Theater has been well maintained with a significant renovation in 1997 which reduced the seating capacity, rebuilt the stage and improved the acoustics.
If Lakeside Center was retrofitted into a flagship Chicago Park District Fieldhouse, the cavernous column-free space could accommodate a wide variety of first-rate facilities all under one roof. The upper levels of the center could be used for indoor tennis courts, running track, yoga, Zumba and weights, and other recreational uses overlooking Lake Michigan, harbors and parks. The expansive lower level halls could be used for an Olympic-sized swimming pool, basketball courts, climbing walls, squash courts, roller rink, roller derby track and perhaps even a bike velodrome track. The massive rooftop could be greened and activated with a jogging path, tennis courts, and basketball courts. The turf at Soldier’s Field covers 1.5 acres while the rooftop of Lakeside Center covers 18.8 acres
A café located at the northeast corner of the Lakeside Center rooftop would have such incredible, panoramic views of the city and lakefront that it would likely become a must-see destination for locals and tourists alike. The building’s enormous terrace overlooking Lake Michigan is ideal for activation such as Chicago Summer Dance, music festivals and other outdoor activities under the broad overhang. The historic Humboldt Park Boat House is a great example of the type of successful programming that could activate and enliven this extraordinary and underutilized community resource.
Located along Chicago’s Lakefront Trail, the Mid-South Cultural Center and Field House would be easily accessible as a central destination to joggers, bikers, rollerbladers and others from Ardmore Street on the North Side to 71st Street on the South Side.
Additionally, Lakeside Center is directly across a narrow channel from Northerly Island Park. Despite its large size and incredible location on a peninsula, this 120-acre park is difficult to access and suffers from low attendance and poor maintenance. A bike and pedestrian bridge could be built directly from Lakeside Center’s expansive terrace to increase access to this neglected Northerly Island Park.
The idea of demolishing a first-class building of great architectural and historical note would be a huge embarrassment for the city and another drain on Chicago’s taxpayers to fund another and bigger windowless convention center on Chicago’s Lakefront. Preservation Chicago applauds Mayor Lightfoot’s decision to slow down the process and encourages McPier, the Chicago Park District and other decision-makers to find a creative way to better integrate the convention center into the daily fabric of Chicago. The Mid-South Cultural Center and Field House would accomplish this.
Other proposed ideas for Lakeside Center include an alternative site for the Obama Presidential Center which would give it a prominent lakefront site on the South Side without destroying or taking public parkland. Also, the idea of a possible casino site has been floated. Another idea proposed by architecture critic and photographer Lee Bey in 2015 was the creation of a Veterans Memorial and Military Museum, similar to the successful Nationaal Militair Museum in a highly similar structure located in Soesterberg, Netherlands.
Aging Lakeside Center: Keep the building. Change the use, By Lee Bey: The Urban Observer Blog, Architecture criticism, photography and commentary from America’s first city of architecture: Chicago, November 10, 2015
Bill to demolish part of McCormick Place along lakefront gets labor support; Legislation in Springfield would add a ride-sharing tax and allow for construction of a new building over King Drive, Fran Spielman, David Roeder, and Tina Sfondeles, Chicago Sun-Times, May 22, 2019
Senators broaden restaurant tax to back McCormick Place expansion; Levy on larger part of Chicago would help convention industry add jobs, proponents say, David Roeder and Fran Spielman, Chicago Sun-Times, May 29, 2019
Lightfoot’s opposition stifles legislation to help McCormick Place; Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been critical of a proposed restaurant tax exemption for sports stadiums, David Roeder and Fran Spielman, Chicago Sun-Times, May 30, 2019
That restaurant tax to pay for McCormick revamp? Looks like it’s dead; Mayor Lightfoot’s opposition to expanding the tax zone up to 10 miles from the convention center was a fatal blow—or so says at least one insider, Greg Hinz, Crain’s Chicago Business, May 30, 2019
McCormick Place revamp picks up steam in end-of-session sprint; The outmoded convention center would get a $600 million new building with funding from an expanded restaurant and bar tax. People as far as 10 miles away would pay for the redo every time they eat or drink. Greg Hinz, Crain’s Chicago Business, May 39, 2019