November 18, 1960: McCormick Place

November 18, 2011

"The new, gleaming jewel of the lakefront" was dedicated on this November 18th in 1960. That would be the first version of McCormick Place.

The mammoth exhibition hall was the pet project of the Tribune's longtime publisher, Col. Robert R. McCormick. He believed Chicago deserved the biggest and best convention facility in the nation, "a booming center for commerce, industry, and culture." He began his campaign in 1927.

The Coliseum, the Amphitheatre. and then the Chicago Stadium--clearly, the city's convention halls weren't doing the job. Yet for all his clout, McCormick couldn't get the new hall built. He wanted to put it on the lakefront near 23rd Street. To most Chicagoans, the parkland along the lake was sacred ground, not to be touched.

The Tribune continued to push the project after the Colonel died in 1955. When new mayor Richard J. Daley signed on, the dream became a reality. Ground was broken in 1958. Two years later McCormick Place was completed. The total cost was $41 million.

The formal dedication began with a dinner for 500 movers-and-shakers. Daley made a speech, calling the new facility "a monument to Col. McCormick and his love for Chicago." Then the distinguished guests toured the building.

What they saw was impressive. McCormick Place had an interior 1005 feet long and 300 feet wide. Six football fields could fit on the main exhibition floor. The cafeteria could serve 1,800 people in an hour. The hall's Arie Crown Theater had 5,081 seats. And so on.

The next day, McCormick Place opened for business with the World Flower and Garden Show. During its first year, the facility hosted 4.5 million people at 28 major exhibitions. The Colonel's hall was fulfilling all his expectations.

There was only one problem--McCormick Place was ugly.

The exterior was unadorned concrete. The joint looked like an industrial storage warehouse, or a giant mausoleum. One comic claimed it was built using a stolen Soviet design--which even the Soviets had rejected.

By 1967 there was already discussion about remodeling the building. Then a convenient fire destroyed the monstrosity.

A new McCormick Place was built on the foundations of the old one. This time it had a friendlier exterior of steel and glass. Other buildings have been added, and Chicago's lakefront convention halls now have a total exhibit space of 2.6 million square feet.