The Municipal Pier, which was built in 1916, was the product of the thinking of architect Daniel Burnham and the members of the Chicago Harbor Commission.
In 1909, Burnham recommended the construction of two large piers for pleasure boats in his Plan of Chicago, a monumental blueprint for transforming the dirty industrial city into a beautiful, orderly "Paris on the prairie." The piers, Burnham reasoned, would attract tourists and pleasure boaters.
As Burnham labored over his Plan of Chicago, the city's mayor, Fred Busse, worried about the economic effects of using the lake shore for leisure rather than industry. In an unsubtle jab at Burnham, Mayor Busse warned the city council that "No city...can thrive on beautification alone."
Mayor Busse convened a group of experts, the Chicago Harbor Commission, to determine how to develop the city's port infrastructure. It suggested that the city's shipping lines would benefit from a large, public pier at the mouth of the Chicago River. The pier would save boats from having to make the time consuming and dangerous trip down Chicago's cluttered, bridge-crossed river channel.
The City of Chicago, in turn, commissioned architect Charles Sumner Frost to construct the pier for both recreation and shipping. The 292-foot wide pier, completed in the spring of 1916, extended from the city street for 3,000 feet into the blue waters of Lake Michigan.
The structure sat atop more than twenty-thousand pilings of Oregon timber. On each end of the pier, Frost planted large steel-framed structures adorned with red brick.
The head house at the foot of Grand Ave. served as the entryway for pedestrians. On each side of the head house stood a tower that held a sixty-thousand gallon gravity tank to provide water for firefighting. Just east of the head house, the passenger and freight buildings stretched 2,340 feet along the pier. The building had two floors and two wings, dissected by an 80-foot wide road with a trolley track for moving cargo and passengers to and from the docks. On each side of the road sat two-story, 100-foot-wide sheds for handling freight.
Just to the east of the terminal building stood an 80-by-220 foot, two-story tall, open-air shelter, serving as a covered passageway to the concert hall on the end of the pier. The concert hall had a 100-foot tall domed ceiling and sat up to 4,000 people. It was flanked on each side by a 165-foot tall observation tower, from which visitors could take in sweeping views of Lake Michigan and the city's growing skyline.
Demand for lake shipping declined dramatically in the 1910s, with the advent of motorized trucking and persistent competition from railroads. Consequently, Municipal Pier became far more important for tourism than for waterborne freight. In 1917 alone, 3.5 million people visited the pier to dance, listen to music, watch theater, eat, take boat cruises and gaze at the city by the lake.
City officials argued that the pier would have a morally uplifting influence on those who visited. A 1918 tourist pamphlet, titled “Spend Your Vacation on the $5,000,000 Municipal Pier,” boasted that the Municipal Pier “is shaping the tastes of the multitudes and teaching many how to spend their leisure profitably.” By advertising the “profitable” uses of leisure time, the pamphlet implied that the pier would divert people’s attentions from pastimes like drinking in the city's many ethnic saloons.
Municipal Pier, which was renamed Navy Pier in 1927 to honor of the veterans of WWI, has been redesigned several times, and it has served various purposes through the decades. It was a site for military trainees during WWII, and it has been the location of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Most importantly, though, it has served as one the city's most popular and iconic tourist attractions for a century now.