|Fire crews pour water on the smouldering embers of McCormick place early on January 16, 1967.|
It was gargantuan—a behemoth of a building—a long white box on the Lake Front. It was an economic powerhouse to rival the belching steel mills of the South Works or the stinking, fading stockyards. It was the thirty year unrealized dream of the Chicago Tribune’s powerful Col. Robert R. McCormick and the pride and joy of Mayor Richard J. Daley who finally pissed on Daniel Burnham’s plan and got it built. McCormick Place was less than seven years old when in the frigid early morning hours of January 16, 1967 it was consumed in fire and left a heap of smoldering wreckage and warped steel beams.
Janitors working overnight to prep the opening the next day of the Housewares Show—then as now the biggest trade show in the U.S.—smelled smoke at 2:05. The first Chicago Fire Department units on the scene discovered an already raging inferno. They also discovered that most of the exterior fire hydrants had been disconnected during the construction of ramps for the new Stevenson Expressway and Lake Shore Drive and that the massive building lacked a sprinkler system. Crews ran hoses over the ice to open Lake Michigan for water. Valuable time was lost.
By 2:30 Robert Quinn, the colorful Fire Commissioner, best remembered for setting off the city’s air raid sirens when the White Sox clinched the American League Pennant back in 1959, arrived, he upgraded it to a five-alarm fire. Eighteen minutes later, he ordered the first special alarm. Before it was done, over 65% of the city’s fire equipment was engaged. Routine cold weather fires elsewhere in the city consumed buildings that otherwise might have been saved.
The mammoth effort did no good. The roof of the massive main convention hall collapsed. The fire was declared finally struck at 9:30. Only a damaged Arie Crown Theater remained standing. One man, security guard Kenneth Goodman died in the fire and several firefighters had relatively minor injuries, mostly due to slipping on ice from all of the water poured on the fire.
The thousands in town for the Housewares show were at a loss—all of their exhibits were ruined. Some smaller start ups lost their prototypes and never recovered. Most left town. A handful tied to have some sort of show with brochures and what they had in their luggage at the Palmer House.
Predictably the two biggest backers of the exhibition hall tried to rally for an immediate attempt to rebuild. Mayor Daley told reporters, “This is a tragic loss to the people of Chicago. But remember the Chicago fire of 1871. The people recovered from that one.” And the Tribune echoed the sentiment and comparison in a front page editorial.
Way back when Chicago was indeed the Toddlin’ Town of the Jazz Age and the rail hub of America, the city had already become the convention center of the nation, supplanting previous claimants like Baltimore and Philadelphia. Led by a series of national political conventions by both parties, word had gotten out that not only was the city capable of handling big events, but that as a wide open town its gin mills, nightclubs, burlesque houses, and armies of hotel lobby hookers attendees could have a mighty good time far away from home.
In the mid-‘20’s the main venue was the Coliseum on the near south side, comfortably close to the notorious Levee District, a cavernous former Confederate Prison with a castle-like façade which had been converted from a Civil War museum. The Armory and other smaller halls took up the slack. But in the Roaring Twenties when people seemed to have money to burn, the biggest conventions along with trade events like the Auto Show were already outgrowing these venues.
Always a big dreamer, in 1927 Col. McCormick first proposed building a huge new hall. He relentlessly used the pages of the Tribune to promote the idea. And with his considerable clout in the city, no one doubted he could do it.
And he probably could have—if he was flexible on where it would be built. But he was not. He wanted it built on the Lake Front at 23rd Street, a couple of miles east of the McCormick Reaper Works, the foundation of his family fortune. His family also controlled real estate nearby that could boom with a new convention center. But he met the considerable opposition of many other members of the Chicago’s elite—or at least their formidable civic minded wives who refused to abandon the famous Burnham Plan which called for the entire Lake Front to be kept clear of development and preserved as open parkland for the citizens.
Then, one after another, other obstacles arose—the Crash of ’29 and the Great Depression took the economic wind out of the city, dried up the convention business and the money for private investment in the scheme. Then the election of Anton Cermak as Mayor marked the end of Republican dominance of city government—and with it much of McCormick’s political clout. Later it is conceivable that a project of that size and scope might have become a public works project with New Deal funding—but the McCormick’s virulent attacks on Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats cut off that possibility. Then, of course, came World War II.
But McCormick never gave up his crusade even as new venues were built including the Chicago Stadium on West Madison in 1929 and the International Amphitheatre by the Stock Yards in 1934. In 1950 Navy Pier was opened to trade shows, sharing space with both the active dock and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The 1950’s were another boom time reminiscent of the ‘20’s. Trade shows, especially, were outgrowing available facilities and there were grumblings that some might now move as air travel was supplanting rail and making destinations like Los Angeles and San Francisco more attractive. The Col. stepped up his campaign, but died in 1955, his dream unrealized.
The Col.’s death, however, was an opportunity for Richard J. Daley, just coming into his own as a building mayor with big plans. He made peace with the Tribune which agreed to support his proposal for the long dreamed of Lake Front facility as a monument to the Col.’s memory. They also agreed to wink at the public funding, which McCormick had always rejected. There may also have been a tacit agreement to lay-off the Democratic administration. Certainly there after that the Tribune was much friendlier to the Mayor and allowed the struggling Chicago Republican organization to wither away without support.
Ground was broken in 1958. Two years later McCormick Place was completed. The total cost was $41 million. That figure did not include tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure support for the building including road ways, ramps, and utilities. In tried and true Chicago fashion contracts were let to friends and cronies and there was plenty of cash to be skimmed, and the pockets of officials fattened. From the beginning McCormick Place was a cash cow for many in so many ways.
Despite being decried as an architectural monstrosity—it resembled an over-size concrete warehouse in an industrial district—the building was a success. It opened with an intimate dinner for 500 movers and shakers presided over by a beaming Mayor Daley on November 18, 1960. The next day the first exposition, World Flower and Garden Show, opened.
During its first year, the facility had 4.5 million visitors and exhibitors and hosted 28 major exhibitions.
McCormick Place had an interior exhibition space 1005 long and 300 feet wide which could comfortably fit six football fields. The cafeteria could serve 1,800 people in an hour. The Arie Crown Theater had 5,081 seats and a mammoth stage that could accommodate any production. Despite notoriously bad acoustics the Theater soon became home to touring Broadway shows and the biggest concerts in the city in the days before outdoor arena shows.
Use grew year by year. And so did the money being pumped into the local economy. An estimated 10,000 people were estimated to be employed directly by McCormick Place and its contractors and by vendors. Thousands of others in the hospitality industry owed their jobs to the place.
With all of this in jeopardy, Mayor Daley wasted no time in rebuilding. A new financing scheme was already in the pipe for planned expansion and renovation of the facility. On the day after the fire Democratic Governor Otto Kerner hastily signed the financing deal that guaranteed enough money for the convention hall to be replaced.
The new building would rise in the footprint of the old and incorporate the still standing Arie Crown. But it would be engineered to new fire standards and instead of an ugly box would stand a sleek glass and steel building. On January 3, 1971, the replacement building, later called the East Building and now called the Lakeside Center, opened with a 300,000 square feet main exhibition hall.
Since then additions have been made. The North Building, across Lake Shore Drive was completed in 1986, is connected to the East Building by an enclosed pedestrian bridge. The South Building, dedicated in 1997, contains more than 1,000,000 square feet of exhibition space. It more than doubled the space in the complex and made McCormick Place the largest convention center in the nation. In August 2, 2007the West Building with 470,000 square feet was added bringing McCormick Place’s total existing exhibition space to 2,670,000 square feet.
Despite the expansion, there have been controversies and challenges for McCormick Place. Trade show long complained about labor costs in Chicago where contracts with numerous crafts led to classic featherbedding from the number of laborers needed to unload trucks to riggers being needed to unfold tables and electricians to plug in an extension cord—or allegedly even to turn on a switch. Big exhibitions, led by the Housewares Show began to threaten to leave the city unless reforms were made. Despite initial foot dragging by the City and a long rear-guard action by the craft locals, eventually pressure from the Illinois General Assembly which threatened fund and bond authority for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, pushed the unions into significant concessions. Now exhibitors can put up their own displays or hire contractors to do it without using the facility’s union personnel with some restrictions.
Still, the Housewares Show abandoned the city anyway, followed by a handful of other big shows, for the warmth and glitz of Las Vegas where hotel rooms are cheap and sin is still peddled. Chicago has become a sanitized city, squeaky clean, with most of the old open vice gone or driven underground, and with it one of the lures of city.
Smaller shows and conventions now often locate at facilities near O’Hare.
Still, McCormick Place is busy and its various halls host hundreds of events every year. It remains an economic powerhouse. This week, if you are interested, the Chicago Boat, Sports RV & Outdoor Show is on and in two weeks the Chicago Auto Show, the largest in the nation, opens for its 113th edition.