Photo of Ferris Wheel in Navy Pier, Chicago

Neighborhood News—Versatile Navy Pier, from prison to university to Entertainment Mecca

Photo of Ferris Wheel in Navy Pier, Chicago

Today, Streeterville’s Navy Pier, at 600 E. Grand Avenue, is a glittering, indoor/outdoor, year-round mecca of entertainment and fun for all, host to millions of tourists, anxious for a turn on the Great (Ferris) Wheel as it towers above DuSable Lake Shore Drive, or a prime spot for Fourth of July/New Year’s Eve Fireworks, or attending a performance at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theatre. 

But that wasn’t always its purpose. 

Opened to the public on July 15, 1916, according to Wikipedia sources, the 3,300-foot-long pier, then known as ‘Municipal Pier,’ was built by Charles Sumner Frost, a nationally known architect,  at a cost of $4.5 million, Municipal Pier was constructed atop 20,000 timber logs imported from Oregon.

Did you know… 

Burnham said this about Chicago’s lakefront:


According to, the pier itself represented a compromise between the hopes of Daniel Burnham in his Plan of Chicago for two recreational piers,  and the city’s desire for a modern harbor facility. 

Originally, the pier was used as a dock for freights, passenger traffic, and indoor and outdoor recreation. Additionally, events like expositions and pageants were held there.

Wait…Municipal Pier was a Prison?

Yes, it sure was! As the United States entered World War I in 1917,  the pier housed soldier barracks and a prison for men who dodged the draft. According to, it also played an important role in military preparations, housing soldiers’ barracks, and a Red Cross station. 

In 1927, to honor those who had served in World War I, the Pier got a new name: Navy Pier.

On to World War II… 

During World War II, more than 60,000 military personnel trained at the Pier and on Lake Michigan – including 15,000 fighter pilots. As legendary newsman Bill Kurtis intoned in WTTW’s documentary on the pier, two former Great Lakes passenger steamers were converted into freshwater aircraft carriers. These makeshift carriers, he said, were quite a bit shorter than their oceangoing counterparts, which added some difficulty to takeoffs and landings. 100 planes ended up on the bottom of Lake Michigan; many are still there. The pier contained a 2,500-seat theater, gym, 12-chair barber shop, tailor, cobbler shops, soda fountain and a vast kitchen and hospital, according to Wikipedia sources. 

Post-War University and Present-Day Entertainment 

Navy Pier became the location of the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1946, seeing soldiers utilizing the new GI Education Bill,  and held classes at the pier. As the maximum capacity was exceeded, the school outgrew the pier and the university relocated to Circle Campus in 1965. After the university left, the Navy Pier, as Wikipedia sources note, “became underutilized.” 

Renaissance and Entertainment Mecca 

According to the Chicago Architecture Center , in 1995, VOA and Benjamin Thompson Associates completed a major reconstruction and redesign of the pier. It resulted in the creation of the Chicago Children’s Museum, the Crystal Garden, Festival Hall and the Ferris Wheel. Since then, the pier has been used exclusively as an entertainment venue. In 1999, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater moved to the pier, adding one more important entertainment venue. The pier has experienced another resurgence, with a 2016 redesign by James Corner Field Operations that added a grand staircase leading up to the new 200-foot Centennial Wheel and the Polk Bros. Foundation Park near the entrance, complete with a large participatory fountain and two stages for entertainment.

Coming Up: Light Up The Lake! 

Starting Friday, November 25,  Navy Pier is presenting Chicago’s largest indoor lights experience, ‘Light Up The Lake! ‘Interactive light displays, a whimsical skating rink, journeys through the birch tree maze, and visits with Santa at  Festival Hall. For tickets and information, click here.

There is no admission fee to enter Navy Pier. Attractions within Navy Pier may have admission prices and those prices can be obtained from each individual attraction’s box office.

Alison Moran-Powers and Dean’s Team Chicago