The Storied (and Sometimes Strange) History of Soldier Field (2024)

While made nationally famous as the home of "Da Bears," Chicago's Soldier Field has a storied history as a municipal gathering place and host to countless events of the sporting, civic and even religious nature (though those that attend Bears games might argue that it is a house of worship even today). Since it was first opened in the early 1920s, Soldier Field has hosted everything from horse shoe contests, stock car racing, hockey games, music festivals, World Cup soccer matches, and of course, NFL games. The stadium not only has a long, and sometimes strange history, but its design and look has also evolved over the years. What started off as being a large and open venue that borrowed heavily from the popularity of neoclassical architecture in the early decades of the twentieth century, the stadium's appearance dramatically changed by the early 2000s. Named after the members of the armed forces who participated the first World War, Soldier Field will be celebrating its 100th birthday in a few years. Here's a look back at how Chicagoans have utilized the famous stadium over the last century.

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[Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

In 1919, the South Park Commission held a design competition for what was originally envisioned as a central gathering place "for events and a playground for the people." The architecture firm Holabird & Roche won the competition and designed a U-shaped stadium in neoclassical style, complete with matched Doric colonnades that opened on October 9, 1924 as the Grant Park Municipal Stadium. Its sobriquet was changed one year later to honor soldiers lost in World War I. The ceremony to mark the change was held on Armistice (now Veterans') Day and began with a firing of guns at sunrise, a 21-gun salute at 11 a.m. aside from the parades and ceremonial flag-raisings.

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[A tractor clearing land around Soldier Field in 1924. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.]

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[Construction crews working on the bleachers in 1926. Photo: Chicago Park District Special Collections via The University of Chicago Press.]

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[The gathering of the XXVIII International Eucharistic Congress in June 1926. Photo via the Library of Congress.]

Though it opened in 1924, the stadium wasn't completed until a third phase of construction concluded in 1939, giving it an ultimate capacity of 74,280 bleacher seats constructed out of fir planking. For special events, additional seating could be added to the end zones bringing the stadium's potential audience capacity to somewhere in the range of 100,000 attendees, though even that figure was occasionally topped by a special event.

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[Construction crews working on the north-end stands in September 1938. Photo: Chicago Park District Special Collections via The University of Chicago Press.]

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[The 1942 Army War Show sought to drum up support for the war effort. Photo: Chicago Park District Special Collections via The University of Chicago Press.]

Today, Soldier Field remains one of the few stadiums still standing from the storied "Golden Age" of sports. The stadium was designed for flexibility, and it hosted everything from visits by heads of state, to football games, boxing matches, stock car races, and even ski jump competitions. Its pre-Bears history is rich: the Monsters of the Midway didn't even move in until 1971.

The first football game hosted in the stadium was, indeed, a football game. Notre Dame faced off against Northwestern in November of 1924 (ND won 12 to 6) but before that, on October 9, a "Chicago Day" event was held to mark the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

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[The 1926 Army-Navy game hosted at Solider Field. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.]

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[The Fighting Irish meeting with the Army squad in 1930. Notre Dame suggests that 110,000 spectators filled the stands during this game. Photo: University of Notre Dame Archives.]

The event featured a formal dedication and official opening with a mock battle, a horse-riding exhibition from the U.S. 14th Cavalry, and a re-enactment of the fire complete with a cow kicking over Mrs. O'Leary's lantern. Ten firemen who had actually fought the great fire used the city's first pump engine against the mock blaze in which a replica O'Leary barn was burned down. Some variation of this event was held there until 1970.

But Soldier Field's early years were also marked with some less-professional exhibitions, like an amateur horse-shoe pitching match and the South Parks Marble Championship. Sunrise Easter observances were also held annually.

One of the earliest notable events was the boxing match between heavyweight champion Gene Tunney and former champion Jack Dempsey on September 22, 1927. The fight was a rematch from the previous year when Tunney defeated Dempsey, the favorite.

The rematch drew a gate of $2,658,660 ($22 million today) and set a simultaneous record for the first $1 million gate and the first $2 million gate. The fight has gone down in history for a controversial decision by a referee in the seventh round when Dempsey knocked Tunney down but the referee didn't begin the count until Dempsey had moved to a neutral corner, allowing Tunney extra time to recuperate. He went on to win the fight and spoil the hopes of many betting fans including, according to rumor, Al Capone.

Several years later, a war show celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of George Washington's birth was held June 24, 1932. It was an 11-day event opened by an 8 p.m. flyover by four squadrons of fighter planes (perhaps anticipating the Air & Water Show) escorting Amelia Earhart in a plane painted to resemble a red and white eagle. Earhart joined the famous who addressed crowds in the stadium when she later arrived to address and medal and recount her 1931 flight across the Atlantic Ocean to the crowd.

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[The 1933 World's Fair. Photo: Getty Images.]

During the 1933-1934 Century of Progress World's Fair, Soldier Field hosted the opening ceremonies and a dizzying array of events from the mundane and regular (another round of the South Parks Marble Championship) to the more elaborate and unusual.

Several shows celebrated "racial" history with the Fair as a background. On July 3 1933, 150,000 spectators attended "A Romance of a People," an elaborate Jewish pageant telling the history of their people. Chaim Weizmann (later the first president of Israel) opened the show which required over 6,000 performers. It was so successful an encore was staged a few days later.

Perhaps less elaborate was the celebrations of the 300th anniversary of the first Swedish immigration to the U.S. and "Epic of a Race" show, which celebrated African American history, though it did feature 1,500 performers. The performances tied into the fair's theme of "progress."

But the legacy of the fair wasn't all warm memories. As the famous "Sky Ride" across the lagoon was being demolished in August 1935, its west tower fell onto a portion of the field's exterior walls necessitating $50,000 in repairs.

In 1937 the Norges Ski Club, which still exists and operates in the Chicago suburb of Fox River Grove, first created a ski jump at the stadium, perhaps inspired by the previous year's 13-story ski jump had been built by the U.S. Central Ski Association. The competitions at first measured distance but over time also grew to emphasize trick skiing.

Another big moment in Soldier Field's history came on October 28, 1944 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his only Midwestern speaking appearance during his fourth (and final) reelection campaign. It was attended by over 150,000 with another 150,000 trying to get in but being denied admission.

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[FDR at Solider Field in 1944. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.]

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[Collectors of memorabilia missed out on this ticket, but there may be more out there.]

For some reason in 1947 auto racing in the field became popular. Both midget and stock car races were held within the field for years to come.

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[Photo: Pinterest]

President Harry Truman made a trip to Soldier Field on June 19, 1949 to preside over the event marking the 75th anniversary of the Shriners, the first event at the stadium ever to be televised. The big anniversary celebration included one of the largest parades in the city's history, with 15,000 members of the fraternal order from 1,000 chapters and 130 bands. The parade covered three miles and lasted five hours culminating at the field.

But perhaps the largest event ever held at the field was the Marian Year tribute of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. It's estimated that 180,000 attendees were inside the stadium itself while another 80,000 listened outside on loudspeakers.

Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a Chicago Freedom Movement rally at the field June 21 1964 that drew 75,000.

Longtime Chicago Daily News columnist and author Mike Royko even hosted an event at the field. In 1967, he organized the "Mixed Breed Dog Show."

In 1971, the Chicago Bears could be found playing games at Wrigley Field (home of the Cubs) but when the AFL and the NFL merged, new rules required fields that seat over 50,000. They'd originally intended to build a stadium in northwest suburban Arlington Heights but settled on moving into Solider Field instead. Some renovations were required first, including new end zone seating on the north which created a separate "North Field" section, which would later go on to host tennis tournaments. The Bears extended their lease with the Chicago Park District in 1978 for another twenty years, and began replacing Soldier Field's old plank seating with more modern stadium seating

In another landmark moment for Chicago synergy, on October 13, 1983, David D. Meilahn made the first-ever commercial cell phone call from the field on a Motorola DynaTAC, a major turning point in communications history. The Chicago-based handset and radio equipment manufacturer was proud to show off its new technology on home turf.

Perhaps the greatest landmark moment associated with the Bear's tenure happened with the 1985 Super Bowl, with the hit song "Super Bowl Shuffle" burned into the memory of a generation.

The Super Bowl Shuffle from John Wholespice on Vimeo

The field was imperiled when, in 1989, a proposal was made for a newer, domed stadium that would be built on the site. The Bears announced that it would consider moving to Indiana, and even purchased options on sites in suburban Aurora and Hoffman Estates to show the city that it was serious about leaving. The state legislature ultimately rejected the move.

In 1994, Soldier Field once again welcomed the world, this time as a venue for the World Cup.

Minor renovations were made until 2001 when the Chicago Park District announced plans for a major reconstruction. They hired the Boston architecture firm of Wood + Zapata to design the addition, with the grounds reconfigured by Chicago architect Dirk Lohan, the grandson of Ludwig Mies van de Rohe. The plan called for a demolition of the interior while preserving the stadium's exterior. Writers and preservationists weren't too impressed with the renovation plans. The Tribune's Blair Kamin famously called the plan the "Eyesore on the lakeshore."

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[A view from inside the stadium. Photo via the Curbed Chicago Flickr pool/Frank Hashimoto]

But Lohan fired back with this:

"I would never say that Soldier Field is an architectural landmark. Nobody has copied it; nobody has learned from it. People like it for nostalgic reasons. They remember the games and parades and tractor pulls and veterans' affairs they've seen there over the years. I wouldn't do this if it were the Parthenon. But this isn't the Parthenon."

The renovations moved forward and by 2006, Soldier Field had been stripped of its National Historic Landmark Status by the National Park Service. Leaving Chicago with what some described as a spaceship that landed on the lakefront.

Andrew Schneider

·Previous Soldier Field coverage [Curbed Chicago]
·Monochromes archives [Curbed Chicago]

The Storied (and Sometimes Strange) History of Soldier Field (2024)
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