The Drama-Filled Making of Millennium Park (2024)

When it opened in July 2004, Millennium Park was four years behind schedule and $340 million over budget. But all of that was quickly subsumed by the magnitude of the accomplishment. The 24.5-acre showpiece has become the city’s unrivaled top attraction, a symbol of Chicago’s civic pride and vision. Each year, an estimated 20 million visitors stop by to snap selfies at Cloud Gate (a.k.a. the Bean), lounge on the Great Lawn, frolic at Crown Fountain, catch a concert at Jay Pritzker Pavilion, or commune with nature at Lurie Garden.

To mark the 20th anniversary of what has been hailed as “America’s most dazzling urban park,” Chicago spoke with organizers, artists, architects, builders, benefactors, and political insiders who played key roles in its often arduous, sometimes controversial, and ultimately triumphant creation.

I“The railroad didn’t own the land after all”

Before it became Millennium Park, the site east of Michigan Avenue, between Randolph and Monroe Streets, was a gravel parking lot scarred by long-defunct railroad tracks — urban blight that private citizens and public figures had, over the years, tried and failed to beautify. In the 1970s, the area was slated to become a 20-acre park called Lakefront Gardens, complete with an outdoor music bowl, a theater, a restaurant, and a skating rink. That plan never came to fruition. But two decades later, during the third of what would be Mayor Richard M. Daley’s four terms in office, the powers that be were ready to give it another try. First, though, the city had to clear up some land rights issues.

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Randy Mehrberg
Chicago Park District general counsel and lakefront director

In 1993, I went to work with Forrest Claypool in the Chicago Park District. I was responsible for the lakefront district. It always made no sense to me that there was this muddy, ugly hole right off Michigan Avenue. It also made no sense that if the Illinois Central Railroad owned that land, they would use it as a surface parking lot. You would think they would do something else with it. The other thing that stood out was that there was one track on the eastern edge with a single boxcar on it. It was just an eyesore. For a century, city and parks groups would try to buy the land, and the railroad would never sell it.

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Forrest Claypool
Chicago Park District superintendent

[Conservationists] Vicky and George Ranney had put together the plan to buy the site for Lakefront Gardens. They tried to get the Bilandic administration to help. But the Bilandic administration just didn’t have the juice. And the railroad wasn’t willing to sell even if [a civic group] could get enough money, so it just all fell apart.

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Randy Mehrberg
Chicago Park District general counsel and lakefront director

I did a title search. I just wanted to get to the bottom of it. I was sort of a zealot about the use of public land. I found out that the railroad didn’t own the land after all. It was always the city’s land. What the railroad had was an easem*nt. So they could use the land for rail purposes, but they couldn’t build a building. They had no air rights. And to maintain the fiction of rail purposes, they kept the single track and the single boxcar. The railroad was happy to make some ancillary revenue as a parking operation. At this point, Forrest and I advised the mayor of what we had found. And [in 1996] the park district and the city Law Department together sued the railroad.

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Forrest Claypool
Chicago Park District superintendent

Without Randy Mehrberg’s discovery, none of this happens. Daley was in action mode almost immediately. As in: “Let’s go through the legal process here to get this thing done.” It was not until this sort of virgin land in the middle of the city became available that he saw that this was the chance.

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Randy Mehrberg
Chicago Park District general counsel and lakefront director

The railroad was not terribly happy or receptive. But a funny thing happened: The Illinois Central was in the process of being sold to the Canadian National Railway. And I suggested to the railroad that instead of litigating with us, they make a donation to the city of all of their title and interest rights from Randolph Street to McCormick Place. They would get a nice tax deduction, and it would enhance their merger, because the purchase price was based on a multiple of earnings, and a large tax deduction would improve their earnings. We were able to negotiate that.

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Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune architecture critic

Daley wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of covering [the lot]. But he had all the political capital and had accumulated tremendous power. And he was surrounded by really smart, shrewd people who knew how to move the bulldozer and bring in the construction crane and change the city. Daley had started off by sort of Martha Stewart–ing the cityscape. He had done the median planters on Michigan Avenue. And then he went on to grander projects. The first one of any significance, really, was the Museum Campus, which opened in '98. That was a big move. People had dreamed about shifting the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive off the lakefront for decades. So he was riding really high politically; he had shown that he could get big things done. People wanted to make him happy and get on his good side. That’s part of the serendipity of this whole thing.

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Forrest Claypool
Chicago Park District superintendent

Daley was in his own sense an urban planner at heart, and he had deep relationships in the business community and the philanthropic community. So he was perfectly positioned to leverage the resources of the city in bringing this to bear.

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II“You’re always going to need more”

Having cleared a major legal hurdle, Daley and his team had to figure out what to do with the land — and how to finance a project  without, as Daley would soon promise the public, using taxpayer funds.

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Randy Mehrberg
Chicago Park District general counsel and lakefront director

Ed Uhlir was the director of planning at the Chicago Park District. He and I worked hand in glove, and we came up with an initial plan to basically build a grassy park in this area and an underground garage. We were going to float bonds, which would be supported by the revenue generated by the garage. And that’s what we presented to the mayor. A grassy park was what I knew we could afford with that revenue.

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Donna LaPietra
TV producer and civic booster

John Bryan [CEO of Sara Lee at the time] and I had already been thinking of an idea for the millennium, and Daley had given us his tacit approval to do something. Why couldn’t we make that hole in the ground into a place that would welcome these fests that had become popular? He felt the same way. And a band shell concept would go with having music festivals. So that was framing what was motivating us at the time. John also had an idea that was part of the Burnham Plan [architect Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago], which was to have something almost like a Statue of Liberty beacon out in the harbor. He wasn’t quite sure what that would be, so he was shopping it around. But he was just getting no traction. I said, “Well, I’m going to suggest something to the mayor.” And that was the idea of taking Butler Field, the area across from Buckingham Fountain, and making it one of the greatest gardens of the world. I went to the mayor, and he loved the idea. John said, “Let’s do it.” Well, that only lasted for about a week or so, because the mayor called us in to see a kind of three-dimensional napkin drawing of something that was put together by Adrian Smith at SOM.

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Adrian Smith
Architect and principal at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

We were initially asked by Mayor Daley to get involved in the renovation of Soldier Field. That was in 1997 or 1998. And we worked through a renovation scheme that ultimately was a roof system that you could move over the field when it needed to be covered and then slide to the north to cover the VIP parking area, which we wanted to turn into a covered tennis venue. But we could never get [Bears owner] Michael McCaskey to agree. The result was that SOM was out of a commission. The mayor said, “Adrian, we have another project in Grant Park. We want you to move the Petrillo band shell over to the area north of the Art Institute.” He wanted it to be on the south end looking north. So I said, “Yeah, we can look at that.” But we thought the band shell should be north, looking south, so that you had a view of the Art Institute, and it expanded the cultural venue all the way to Randolph. We could develop this whole parcel, with parking below. So we recommended that the upper deck become the park and that we span over the tracks and continue all the way to Columbus.

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Randy Mehrberg
Chicago Park District general counsel and lakefront director

The mayor wanted to maximize the impact and do something spectacular, so he reached out to John Bryan.

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Donna LaPietra
TV producer and civic booster

The mayor said, “I’ve got everything in place, but what I really need is your help in financing the land bridge,” which was really a piece of infrastructure. “If I don’t have this, then you’re looking down at the tracks. And I need $32 million for that.” John and I said we’d think about it and walked out into the hallway. Jim Wood, who was the head of the Art Institute, was with us. And I remember John saying, in a gentle way with his Mississippi drawl, “You don’t go out for $32 million. You’re always going to need more; that will never do. And you don’t ask for money for hardscape that the city should be providing.” So was born the idea of creating amenities, enhancements. And this was the beginning of bringing in artists to create these various areas.

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Forrest Claypool
Chicago Park District superintendent

Reaching out to John Bryan was a stroke of genius. But I don’t think the mayor, even in his wildest dreams, understood what Bryan was capable of doing — what he would do after Daley set that ball in motion. Nobody said no to John. He was a master fundraiser, particularly for the arts, which was his passion. He was relentless. And he had this Southern charm and just a tremendous love of his adopted city. Without John Bryan, there is no Millennium Park as we know it today. He took it upon himself to basically round up the elites of the city. And they started putting committees together that ended up creating ideas and raising more money and commissioning art and artists that caused complete shifts in the direction of the park. Donna LaPietra was John’s coconspirator in all this.

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Donna LaPietra
TV producer and civic booster

The notion of creating what would be this public-private partnership is most unusual. It wouldn’t have happened without Mayor Daley. No question. He just had the mindset for it, the spirit for it. He got it. He felt comfortable with these people. And he recognized what they could bring.

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III“It screamed for sizzle”

In March 1998, Daley publicly announced his plans for what would be called Millennium Park. The initial price tag was $150 million — of which $120 million was to come from parking revenue bonds, and the rest from the private sector, led by John Bryan’s fundraising. Though the master plan from SOM was still evolving, Bryan would later say, “I’ve never had as good a product to sell as this in my life.” By that June, the bonds had brought in more than expected: $137 million. It would soon prove to be not nearly enough. That September, workers began installing the parking deck that would serve as the park’s foundation.

There was this big rush to meet the millennium, and so they basically threw traditional best practices out the window. It was just speed, speed, speed, speed to get everything done. They were basically putting out contracts to demolish stuff without actually having designs in place or competitive bidding. And as a result, mistakes were made that then caused delays. I understand that when you make a political promise that you’re not going to spend any tax dollars, you’ve got to get the revenue stream going. But this artificial date of having it ready for the millennium seems in retrospect kind of silly. It was the old aphorism: Haste makes waste.

At the same time, some insiders were questioning the aesthetics of SOM’s initial plans.

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Adrian Smith
Architect and principal at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

From John Bryan, and maybe Donna LaPietra as well, there was a concern that the original Beaux-Arts scheme was too traditional. It wasn’t ordinary, but it was conventional compared with the dramatically different park that eventually emerged. John certainly thought it would be nice to have a more modern and contemporary vision. When he was in charge of Sara Lee, he’d put big pieces of sculpture outside the headquarters in Deerfield. So he was a modernist in his thinking. Daley and I were probably on the same wavelength in terms of the traditionalist character of the streetscapes and the general places. We also wanted to tie it with the tradition of Grant Park, which was a classically designed place. And the only building in the area is the Art Institute, which is also a classically designed place. So I wasn’t fighting for the Beaux-Arts concept, but it seemed to be the appropriate thing to do for the infrastructure.

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Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune architecture critic

This was for the millennium, and you wanted it to be something special. It screamed for sizzle.

And sizzle it would get. Instead of relocating Grant Park’s venerable Petrillo Music Shell, planners envisioned a new amphitheater to helm the north end of the Great Lawn — and a star architect was soon brought in to design it.

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Donna LaPietra
TV producer and civic booster

We thought the lead gift for what was originally called the band shell could be from Cindy Pritzker and the Pritzker family, and Cindy was into it. But when she looked at the park’s early design, she said, in her own inimitable way, “Which millennium are you all talking about?”

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Adrian Smith
Architect and principal at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

We were all sitting around this table. There were probably six or seven of us. John Bryan was there, [gallerist] Richard Gray, Cindy Pritzker. And I said, “At the risk of losing control of this project, I think we should ask Frank Gehry to do the proscenium of [the band shell]. We need a strong vision for what this piece could be.” SOM could do the rest of it, but the proscenium was absolutely key. Cindy said, “I’ll donate $15 million if we can get the Pritzker name on the thing and have Frank Gehry do it.”

Gehry, whose Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain had earned rave reviews when it opened in late 1997, was persuaded to come aboard.

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Adrian Smith
Architect and principal at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Cindy called him because she knew him from his winning the Pritzker Architecture Prize [in 1989]. And that cinched the deal.

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Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune architecture critic

Frank Gehry was hotter than a firecracker at the time. And Cindy Pritzker was very keen to the fact that Chicago’s architectural scene had gotten a little dull. She’s civic minded and wanted to liven things up. And so her bringing Gehry in really raised the level of ambition and aspiration.

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Adrian Smith
Architect and principal at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

When I talked to Frank, he told me he wouldn’t do just the proscenium front. He would need to do the building shell as well. I was later surprised to hear that he would also be doing a trellis over the oval [of the band shell and Great Lawn] and the bridge [to Grant Park]. Frank and I had a conversation about this, and I was fine with his role, although taken aback with his expanded scope.

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Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune architecture critic

Once Cindy Pritzker got Frank Gehry involved, it was just a whole new ball game. That was the key that unlocked the door to all the innovative features that make the park as special as it is, and that raised the level of the solid but not particularly imaginative plan that Skidmore had initially presented.

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Adrian Smith
Architect and principal at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

From what he told me, Frank shared his initial vision with Cindy and she said, “That’s a wow, but it’s not a wow-wow. And I want a wow-wow on that site.” So he said, “OK. I’ll go back and make it a wow-wow.” After seeing his brilliant scheme for the trellis and the bridge, I was very impressed and enthusiastic. Frank did not change our master plan or its intent, and during the process he solved a problem we were having with how to support the speakers over the oval.

Ultimately, Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion would cost $60 million. But without some creative maneuvering, the structure might not have gotten built at all.

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Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune architecture critic

Gehry’s band shell might have run into a legal hurdle because of the restriction that Grant Park “remain forever open, clear, and free of any buildings or other obstructions.” Ed Uhlir [who was brought in to oversee the creation of Millennium Park] knew all about that, so he labeled the band shell as art, not a building. That’s how they got away with it.

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IV“I will try to do something unforgettable”

The park was taking a more artistic direction, steered by a committee of local art world luminaries that included Wood, Gray, former Museum of Contemporary Art director Kevin Consey, and attorney Lew Manilow, an MCA founder. In December 1998, prominent British Indian installation artist Anish Kapoor presented his vision for a gargantuan bean-shaped sculpture, originally intended for the southeast corner of the park, where Lurie Garden is now.

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Adrian Smith
Architect and principal at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

There was another piece planned for the center of the property, where the ice-skating rink is. Initially, we’d thought about artist Jeff Koons for that site. He came out with plans for a massive piece that was exuberant and interesting and exciting, but very abstract in its elements. It also was just overpowering in terms of where it would exist in space.

The Tribune described Koons’s planned piece as “an intertwined steel-and-glass sculpture of giant heads of a bunny, a goat and a monkey that would be 150 feet tall, three times the size of the glass block towers of Crown Fountain.” As Uhlir told the newspaper: “His idea was you’d walk up nine stories and then enter on a platform and get on a spiral slide that circled around until you finally got down nine stories.” The idea was deemed impractical and scrapped.

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Adrian Smith
Architect and principal at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Shortly thereafter, Anish Kapoor came in with his scheme. He wanted it to be this sort of void, this interesting experience as you’re walking through the arched component of the Bean. I was in the meeting with John Bryan, Kapoor, and his gallery representative from New York. He brought this model of what they were proposing. It was this beautiful stainless steel polished piece, about two feet wide and about a foot high, on a podium. John said, “Well, this is beautiful. How much would it cost?” Kapoor and his representative conferred a little bit and said, “Probably about $5 million.” And John said, “Oh boy, our budget for this is $3 million. Is there any way you can reduce it in scale or something?” And Kapoor said, “No, you really can’t because this is meant to walk through.” John said, “We’ll figure it out.” After we decided to go with it, I said, “John, this is going to cost a fortune. This is going to be the most technically difficult thing you’ve ever done in your life, trying to shape these forms, put them all together, weld them, ground them smooth, polish them, and make them look like one piece.”

Smith was right. Ultimately, it would take seven years — longer by far than for any of the park’s other art installations — to finish the 110-ton piece, officially called Cloud Gate. And the final price tag, $23 million, would dwarf the early estimate. Because it required a reinforced retaining wall to support its weight — and that would have meant significant changes to the garage, which was already under construction — and because it was anticipated to be a draw, Kapoor’s piece was placed in the central plaza, where the proposed Koons sculpture would have gone.

There was more innovative art to come. Members of Chicago’s wealthy Crown family agreed to back a water-centric installation, and in the spring of 1999 met with Spanish conceptual artist Jaume Plensa.

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Susan Crown
Crown Fountain benefactor

We had originally started with the concept of a big fountain like Buckingham Fountain. Then it occurred to me and a few others that maybe we should be looking for an artist instead of fountain designers, so I went over to meet with [U.S. Equities Realty CEO] Bob Wislow. He filled his entire conference room with images of projects they had done with significant public art involved. I spent two or three hours going through them. That’s how we found Jaume Plensa. I saw an image of a memorial he had done in Israel that just blew me away. During the day, it was a flat surface of stone with a big round opening. And at night, a huge beam of blue light went up about half a mile into the sky. It just struck me as so remarkable, imaginative, classic. When you’re trying to design for the next hundred years, you want something of significance, something memorable.

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Jaume Plensa
Crown Fountain artist

I still remember [family patriarch] Mr. Lester Crown telling me, “We would like to have the tallest jet of water in the world.” And I said, “Look, I don’t know, Mr. Crown. But I will try to do something unforgettable.” My intention was not to do something out of the ordinary in the way of more height. My intention was to try to link something so essential in our life as water with the everyday lives of people in town. To create a reflecting pool as a gathering place where people could come together to share and enjoy something different.

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Susan Crown
Crown Fountain benefactor

Jaume came in and described his idea. He had done a lot of research on fountains and what they had historically been used for, which was communication and passing news between people. Then he showed us his PowerPoint drawings. We trusted his vision because he explained it and kind of sold it to us. It was really compelling.

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Jaume Plensa
Crown Fountain artist

Suddenly the moment arrived when we said how much the price was. Mr. Crown said, “Mamma mia, we expected much less. Do you have the capacity to reduce the project?” I said, “Look, if you have the capacity to reduce Chicago, I could reduce my piece, because I believe it’s in the perfect scale.” My gallerist almost killed me in that moment. But the day after, Susan Crown and [her brother] Jim Crown came to my hotel and said, “Jaume, we love your project. We will do it.” The Crown family gave me all their support, even if they didn’t perfectly understand the artistic concept. It was so risky for them because I combined many different elements. I mixed video with LED screens and real water passing through electric materials in a public space. It seems very dangerous. Many times in the beginning, the city was concerned about whether the LED screens could affect the traffic on Michigan Avenue or produce some accidents.

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Susan Crown
Crown Fountain benefactor

It was a big idea, but not necessarily the biggest structure. Actually, the city reduced the size of what was originally conceived by 25 or 30 percent. Jaume had been doing a series on glass houses that use a very special glass that his group in Barcelona produces. And if you look at [the Crown Fountain towers], it’s just magnificent. The glass squares are like bricks that have a bit of magic opacity.

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Jaume Plensa
Crown Fountain artist

Two professors from the School of the Art Institute helped me create the sets where we filmed the fountain’s faces. We bought a barber chair to put people in the same position, then we rented the most sophisticated camera available at that moment, which they were using to film [the latest] Star Wars. We had a person helping us invite people to be filmed. But nobody wanted to come. It was empty. Then we started to film the fathers, the mothers, the brothers of the professors. And suddenly people started to come. Everybody wanted to be in the fountain. And that’s also the beauty: The diversity of faces, origins, races is extraordinary. The Crown family helped me to get part of the parking area below the fountain to create a technical room where we have all the computers and stuff. A very simple program selects faces in a completely random way.

In the end, the technologically sophisticated fountain cost $17 million — of which $10 million came from the Crown family.

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Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune architecture critic

The ’90s were a very prosperous decade. You had the tech boom before the tech bust, and a lot of people made a ton of money. So Millennium Park was made possible financially and artistically by the digital age. The Bean could never have been done without digital design and digital fabrication. The Crown Fountain was explicitly digital, with its LED screens. One criticism that was floating around at the time was, “Well, this is like Disneyland. It’s like a theme park. You’ve just got these big objects that were dropped down. It’s just a big playground.” No way. I never got that. There was even criticism within the Chicago architectural community, probably in part because of resentment that outsiders were being asked to design some of the major pieces. Everyone was kind of snickering that this would be just a bunch of plop art with no relation to its context. But the pieces just blew that away. They were totally contextual.

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V“It was a mess”

The park’s costs kept rising, to $230 million by the original target date, January 2000. And its more artistic direction necessitated constant revisions.

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Carol Yetken
Millennium Park landscape architect

One thing would change, and then other things changed as a result of that. It was a domino effect. So it was clear early on that three years was not going to be enough for design and construction. As the project progressed, it actually got a little bit easier, because some of the egos were not as in the forefront for the second and even the third phase.

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GlennHarston
Millennium Park general contractor

When Frank Gehry came on board with his pavilion, that changed a whole lot of things because we had to change the foundations to allow for the new stress and more stability. We would leave at 8 o’clock at night, and the next morning we got 40 change orders when we came to the job site. It was just unbelievable. They would say, “Well, rather than put these columns here to support this building, we’re going to move them over here.” Stuff like that. But when your steel fabricator starts fabricating certain size columns and beams, and then you go back to him and say, “Wait a minute, we need that wide flange to be a lot larger,” he has to give us a change order and then we have to give that back to the city. And it wasn’t only for the Gehry portion. It was the [overall] project itself. At one point, we were getting 102 change orders a day. It was a mess. But the city didn’t want to hear it: “Well, you should have thought about that.”

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Forrest Claypool
Chicago Park District superintendent

These huge multi-ton structures were never considered at the beginning. So it ended up years behind and millions and millions of dollars over budget. But it ended up with a huge private investment that no one could have realized at the beginning. Once that was unleashed, Daley let the civic leadership of the city and the business community take the lead in doing that stuff.

With costs climbing — the estimated price tag hit $270 million by June 2000 — and the city unable to issue more bonds, Daley “ported” $35 million from the Central Loop TIF — even though the park merely bordered that TIF district. Tax increment financing is intended to improve blighted areas, which the park no longer was, but under conveniently tweaked legislation, adjacent public projects separated by a public right of way are also eligible.

The move brought increased media scrutiny, and controversy continued to dog the project. That June, Harston’s construction firm, G.M Harston Construction, along with its joint venture partner, Westmont-based Paul H. Schwendener Inc., was terminated from the Millennium Park contracting job. The next year, Harston’s company would sue the city in an attempt to recoup disputed fees. An $11 million settlement was reached in 2008, but nearly every penny went to cover debts, legal expenses, and other fees.

Amid all the heavy construction, landscape architects and plant experts toiled on the park’s natural enhancements. In March 2001, with a design titled “The Shoulder Garden,” the team of Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, American landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, and American opera-set designer Robert Israel won the international competition to create what would eventually be called Lurie Garden.

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Piet Oudolf
Lurie Garden designer

When I got an email from Ed Uhlir asking if I could be part of a competition, I saw the list of people involved — architects from England and America — and thought, They are better than I am. So I said, “No, I’m not going to do this.” At that period, I was not so convinced about myself. But I told him, “I can beat them all on the planting.” I knew that in big cities, landscape architects were seen for their architecture more than for their plant abilities. Then I got an email back, and he said, “Why don’t you join up with one of the people you think you can’t beat?” And that is why I met Kathryn Gustafson. She was one of these very well-known designers at that time. And I thought, OK, I can do the planting, and she’ll do the structural design.

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Kathryn Gustafson
Lurie Garden designer

We had four sides facing the garden to react to: One is a really busy street, and we did not want that street noise to come in. We also didn’t need to connect to Grant Park because Gehry was already doing it with his bridge. The other connection was towards Plensa’s fountain, which steps down three terraces. I adore the fountain and the sculpture, but you really didn’t want to open onto it because it’s a piece within itself. There were all sorts of topography things going on, so opening the garden on one side to the Art Institute and not to the other three sides just made sense. I was lucky enough to know [Italian architect] Renzo Piano. He was working on the museum’s modern extension, and really, the park’s urban planning hadn’t thought about these two pieces [the museum and garden] talking to each other. So I said to Renzo, “Can’t you come over here and make those buildings that go to the parking garage match your buildings so we’re a double-sided street?” They had these horrible embankment kind of things, and so we redesigned the [Monroe Street portion] together.

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Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune architecture critic

The Lurie Garden was a perfect thing to see from the viewing platform of the Art Museum’s Modern Wing. It formed a headdress for the Pritzker Pavilion’s Betty Boop curls.

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Kathryn Gustafson
Lurie Garden designer

In the end, you want it to be a place that is psychologically and physically accessible for all, and I think it is. One of the magic things about the garden: When you’re in it, you don’t know you’re in Chicago. Even though you can see skyscrapers, all of a sudden you’re in a place all to itself. That’s what the shoulder hedge does. We were trying to make it so the garden wasn’t just a walk-through, but a place. And Piet did a lot of research on plant selection.

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Piet Oudolf
Lurie Garden designer

When we got the commission, I had started to travel to see where we could get the plants. I made the first draft of a planting design and showed it to [Wisconsin-based garden architect] Roy Diblik to see whether what I designed would grow in Chicago. I knew it was a city of harsh winters, but my idea was based on the climate of New York. When Roy told me all about Chicago winters, I became very, very careful about what I wanted to use. I wanted to surprise people with a kind of garden that they had not seen before. It’s not a traditional home garden. It evolved into something more complex. It has a lot to do with what we see in the Wild West or in the Midwest in nature.

The garden wouldn’t break ground for two more years, not until July 2003. The reason for the delay? Gehry’s pavilion and its proscenium, a tortuous mass of stainless steel.

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Terry Guen
Landscape architect

In order to build the Pritzker Pavilion, they were using the Lurie Garden area as a lay-down space for those giant prefabricated curls. Then the pavilion got delayed, and Lurie couldn’t start construction because all the pieces of the proscenium were lying there.

Once it was completed in the summer of 2004, the garden, a three-and-a-half-acre urban oasis at the park’s southeast corner, became a visitor favorite. Divided into “dark” and “light” sections by a wooden boardwalk over a “seam” of shallow water, it is home to a wide variety of native plants, including scores of perennials and grasses. The American Society of Landscape Architects proclaimed, “This is not our typical botanic garden; it has raised the bar.”

Also not typical: A $10 million gift from philanthropist Ann Lurie was earmarked specifically for the garden’s perpetual upkeep.

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Kathryn Gustafson
Lurie Garden designer

It was absolutely a miracle that Ann Lurie was willing to support this garden, because she came in after it was designed. It was done. And it has set a precedent in the field that she gave money to maintain it, not build it. That’s why this garden is so successful.

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AnnLurie
Lurie Garden benefactor

The concept of perpetuity was very appealing to me at the time. Endowing the upkeep of the garden assures it will be there to be enjoyed by future generations of Chicagoans.

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VI“It’s like a ship down there”

By the summer of 2001, there was already a need for more money beyond the $370 million that had been committed. That August, the city announced it would dip into the TIF till again. “We took advantage of the situation, and I say that in the most positive way,” the city’s CFO, Walter Knorr, would later declare. Together, the two TIF infusions totaled $95 million.

In August 2001, the Tribune published a lengthy investigative piece that delved into the park’s many problems — construction blunders, contract disputes, missing building permits. The front-page headline minced no words: “Millennium Park Flounders as Deadlines, Budget Blown.”

At first, Daley blamed the behind-schedule pavilion. “We are still waiting for Frank Gehry’s design,” he told reporters. “The longer he delays, his contract keeps going up, and that has been the problem.” Days later, after Gehry’s camp and others took umbrage, the mayor backed off.

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Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune architecture critic

I knew from experience, and from listening to stories that critics who were older than me told, that if this thing was a success, ultimately the cost overruns would be forgotten. The investigative stories, which were properly done, never really took the measure, as a critic can do, of the park’s artistry. And once the artistry became apparent, all of a sudden it was clear — to me, at least — that this park was going to be a tremendous attraction and one that would supercharge the revival of the area around it.

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Forrest Claypool
Chicago Park District superintendent

At every point, Daley was trying to do the right thing. At every point, he was trying to do what he thought would move the project forward in its most impactful way and in the fastest way possible.

Daley was never one to be cowed by controversy, so construction continued unabated. February 2002 saw groundbreaking for the indoor theater, named for its primary backers, Irving and Joan Harris.

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Thomas Beeby
Harris Theater architect

Ed Uhlir had called me up and said, “We have this Millennium Park project going. There’s [an amphitheater] here, and it’s way over budget. Maybe we can figure out a way to have the outside theater and an inside theater work together to get more efficient use of the space.” We were active in the winter, they were active in the summer. So we could share the back-of-the-house stuff — dressing rooms and office space. We were actually not asked to be part of the park. The theater was administered as a separate project, sort of attached. I found that a relief, because they had their own problems. And I was happy to be on the edge of the park, on East Randolph, where we could have a street façade. Slowly, over time, they absorbed us.

Planners decided early on to build the theater primarily underground.

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Thomas Beeby
Harris Theater architect

It was clear after a couple of meetings with Friends of the Parks [the local watchdog group] that there was going to be opposition to putting our theater above grade. And we had to worry about coming into conflict with Frank’s design for his theater. If we came looming up behind him, it would not be a great thing.

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Joan Harris
Harris Theater benefactor

I had been involved previously with building a theater in Aspen. The architect took it underground because the residents didn’t want a building sticking up, getting in the way of this beautiful scenery. Because we would have to build 30 feet under [the water line of] Lake Michigan, I invited Tom Beeby to come to Aspen to look at that theater.

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Thomas Beeby
Harris Theater architect

We took the building all the way down to lake level, which was difficult. We designed a very thin lobby that could go aboveground, which the Friends of the Parks eventually endorsed. Building in a hole is what it amounted to. The logistics of it all were pretty complex. We had to drop very large pieces of precast concrete into a hole off the Randolph Street bridge. So there were concerns: How strong is the bridge, and can you put a crane there? How do you move the crane around? Because they were building the garage and occupying all the crane positions. And since the stage is below lake level, we had to have a pump system to evacuate water as it leaked in. There were all kinds of special engineering things we had to do to make it watertight. Essentially, it’s like a ship down there.

As the 1,500-seat Harris Theater began taking shape, most of it invisible to the public, construction on the rest of the park progressed. By the end of 2002, price estimates had hit $410 million. The ambitious landscaping played no small role.

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Carol Yetken
Millennium Park landscape architect

Mayor Daley wanted the park to look finished the day it opened. Which meant he wanted real trees, not three-inch trees. So all the plant materials had to be significantly large. For the Michigan Avenue section, I even went to Delaware to tag trees because we outstripped the local area.

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VII“Fifteen years? Hell, 15 minutes”

On July 16, 2004, after an inaugural VIP gala in May, Millennium Park welcomed the public to wander in wonder and soak in the sites, including Cloud Gate, which was still a work in progress. The New York Times described Chicago’s new showcase as “a sculpture garden on steroids.” The total price tag: $490 million, with $220 million coming from private donors.

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Forrest Claypool
Chicago Park District superintendent

My biggest memory of the opening is running into [former Chicago Tonight host] John Callaway. He and his wife were dining at one of the restaurants there, and he was just joyful. He was marveling at what an incredible triumph this was. And I said to him, “Yeah. It’s millions over budget and years behind schedule. But this park is so beautiful that in 15 years, no one will remember any of that.” Callaway looked at me and said, “Fifteen years? Hell, 15 minutes.”

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Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune architecture critic

There was criticism that it would have been better to take the $500 million spent on this downtown park and split it into money for parks that would go in wards where they were desperately needed. And I guess in a strict, shortsighted way, that’s true. But it would have deprived Chicago of this great artistic achievement, what’s become its town square and a symbol of the city. It’s fair to say that if you live in portions of the South and West Sides that are still devastated by gun violence or disinvestment, Millennium Park may seem like a distant reality that has very little to do with your everyday life. And the park does need to be seen in this larger context: The image of Chicago it projects is, to some extent, deceptive. But problems in the rest of the city do not devalue the extraordinary success of Millennium Park.

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Donna LaPietra
TV producer and civic booster

John Bryan said something was about to happen that would elevate Chicago in the eyes of the world. And it did. But Millennium Park also elevated Chicago in the eyes of Chicagoans. On any given day, I think of it as the most democratic place in a divided city.

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Adrian Smith
Architect and principal at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

In many ways, Millennium Park put the city back on the map during the first two decades of the century.

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Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune architecture critic

Remember, the park opened only three years after 9/11. You had this whole phenomenon of cocooning, where people were scared of the public realm. And here’s this big, bold, optimistic urban statement: Cities are back. Enjoy them. At a time when people really craved exuberance, it returned us to something joyful.

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