One of my favorite Chicago spaces is the Grand Ballroom on Navy Pier.
by Sabra Goldman, CAC docent, class of 2010
Navy Pier (then called Municipal Pier) opened in 1916 with great fanfare under the banner of: “Built by the City and Owned by the City for the People.”
I think it was architect Charles Sumner Frost’s finest work. Frost came from Boston after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Over the years, his career flourished and, with the pier and ballroom, he created a grand design.
A tourist pamphlet from the summer of 1917 conveyed the following message: “Spend your vacation on the $5,000,000 Municipal Pier. Activities offered are boating, fishing, music and dancing!”
The pier proved to be very popular for hot Chicago residents who longed for cool breezes off Lake Michigan. The Ballroom building, with its belvedere towers that could be climbed for magnificent lakefront views, was the most popular.
By the mid-1970s, the Grand Ballroom had deteriorated due to disuse and abandonment. Fortunately, it was restored in time for the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial celebrations. The Grand Ballroom was once again a grand space.
Now named the Aon Grand Ballroom, its interior has an 80-foot, half-domed ceiling and an 18,000-square-foot floor space. The room holds up to 1,400 people. In its day, it did just that with performances by James Brown, The Beach Boys, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Buffet, Alice Cooper and, last but not least, “Weird Al” Yankovic!
I have only toured the building’s interior and never had the opportunity to enjoy an event or performance in this grand setting. Once, however, I did come close; here is the scene:
There was a wedding reception taking place inside the ballroom and I was taking in the fireworks. When I looked behind me, I discovered the wedding party was gathered around the large windows, immersed in the fireworks providing additional magic to their celebration!
Thanks in part to Aon, the Grand Ballroom has been rejuvenated once again. Its spectacular ceiling is lit along the curved dome with 3,000 lights, ready for that next great event.