A park for the ages

Sheila Burt and Sheila Burt

Chicago–After nearly seven years of planning, construction and a bulging budget of $475 million, it’s finally here. From dust to modern beauty, the opening of Chicago’s 24.5-acre Millennium Park marks a monumental moment in the city’s history.

The park lies in the heart of the eastern part of the Loop, north of the financial district and south of the main shopping sections of Michigan Avenue.

The park celebrates its official grand opening Friday with extravagant events continuing until Sunday — and people from within and outside the city already seem to be flocking to the park.

One week before the grand opening, on a cozy Friday afternoon, the few open areas of the park bustle with excitement as if from a scene in a Meg Ryan movie.

“I think it’s wonderful — beautiful,” says Robyn Lowry, who is visiting the Wrigley Square portion of the park, located at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street.

She is sitting near the Millennium Monument, a replica of the original structure that stood in the same location between 1917 and 1953. More than 10 Doric-style columns rise nearly 40 feet, just above a beautiful water fountain.

Lowry came to the park with her family from Highland, Ind. — about a 35 minute drive from Chicago. Her favorite features of the park are the fountain and the little architectural details. She also is fond of the cone-like structures near the music pavilions, which reminded her of areas in Sydney, Aus.

“The gardens are beautiful and it’s clean,” she says. “It’s a creative park.”

A long time coming

It’s hard to believe that Lowry was talking about an area that once consisted of railroad tracks and parking lots. But city officials were hoping that, regardless of the land’s origins, Millennium Park would become one of Chicago’s main attractions.

“Millennium Park is a monumental achievement by the city and its philanthropic community,” said Mayor Richard M. Daley in a June 25 press release. “It is much more than a park; it is a showcase for the visual and performing arts and a tribute to the vitality and creativity of our city.”

Plans for the park began in 1997. Daley went to local businesses and private donors to raise $150 million, but the initial designs were deemed unremarkable. Later, under the supervision of several architects, including the world-famous Frank Gehry, the vision for the park began to change.

As a result, that $150 million budget soon skyrocketed. The city pumped in $270 million to cover the costs, while private donors and businesses funneled in an additional $205 million.

The result, for many, is a breathtaking park. Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion acts as the centerpiece for the $475 million park, which also features lush gardens, a steel structure beautifully reflecting the city, and a 925-foot long bridge clad in stainless steel panels with a hardwood deck, among many other distinct features.

Bring on the tourism

City officials hoped the park would become a rich cultural center for Chicago, pumping excitement — and tourists — into the bloodline of the Windy City.

“I think it’s all artistically significant,” said Priscilla Mims, a tour guide with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. “It’s like this new art sculpture for the people of Chicago and people from all over the world.”

Mims has been giving tours of the park since May. She said the Pritzker Pavilion and the BP Bridge — a pedestrian bridge also designed by Gehry — are two of the biggest attractions, although the structures will not be accessible until the park’s opening.

The park currently features an exhibit, “Family Album: The Family Album of the Planet Earth” by German-born, Paris-based photographer Uwe Ommer. The large pictures aligning the park’s main entrance depict families from around the world.

Ann Connors and Dorothy Walton stared at the pictures on the Friday afternoon. The two friends stopped by the park after work to look at the exhibit before heading to a show and dinner.

“It’s going to make Chicago even more attractive,” Connors, 45, noted. “The art is very modern and thought-provoking.”

B.J. Johnson, 77, stood on a park ledge with four other friends just after looking at the park.

Johnson, of suburban Western Springs, said she follows anything related to Chicago and architecture, so she’s been anticipating the opening of Millennium Park for years.

“I think that it’s magnificent,” she said with a smile.

She predicted that the park will help boost Chicago tourism to a new level.

Across from Johnson, three boys huddled in a corner and talked comfortably. A few feet away, Brad Knight, 39, stood wearing a white collared shirt and gray pants.

He stared at the Anish Kapoor Sculpture, a giant silver bean consisting of 110 tons of stainless steel that reflects Chicago’s skyline through highly reflective panels. It’s easily one of the most impressive details in the park, reflecting a view of Chicago from a perspective never seen before.

“I’m impressed with how it shows so much,” said Knight, who saw the image on the front-page of the Chicago Sun-Times and decided to see it up-close before heading to a show. “I don’t know what it’s made of, but it’s made of something so reflective.”

Bridging generations

Though some areas will not open for a few months, the park already seems like a red-hot tourist destination, attracting speakers of different languages, as if bringing the architects’ blueprints to life.

Chicago-resident Chris McBee, 39, sat down on a ledge and stared into his cell phone.

“This is something for future generations,” he reflected.

While McBee said he was disappointed that some of the music pavilions may be used only for classical music concerts, he still thought the park was a strong asset for the city, especially when considering the area was once dusty railroad tracks.

“I have to take my hat off to the park owners,” he said. “But they should have pictures of how it used to be.”

That way, he said, people could show younger generations where they used to hang out and how the area looked before.

At about 6 p.m., the sun lingered midway in the sky, high above the cars speeding past Randolph Street at 50 miles per hour. Cars beeped and exhaust fumes rose as the rush hour traffic scurried by.

But back in the park, time moved slower.

“Hey guys, come on!” a father playfully yelled to his two young children who were playing near the water fountain.

On the sidewalk parallel to Michigan Avenue, the view into the park was almost too perfect. The sun’s rays gently reflected on the fountain water and the mid-size gathering of visitors. Sitting on a ledge on the border of the park, hidden in several trees, sat a young couple.

They were not talking, only whispering at most. Looking at each other, they simply held hands — right in Chicago’s newest glory.

Scene Reporter Sheila Burt is a Medill junior. She can be reached at [email protected]