Soldier Field: A Stadium and its City
By Liam T. A. Ford. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009; 364 pp., hardcover, $30.00.
Liam Ford’s Soldier Field: A Stadium and its City is a work of social history rather than one that deals with professional preservation analysis.
Those looking for a comprehensive chronology or critical examination of the finer points of the historic preservation debate over the stadium’s changes will need to look elsewhere. Instead, Ford, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who has covered housing, politics, regional development, and the Chicago Park District, focuses on the many events held at the stadium from its construction to the present day as well as the stadium’s place in Chicago machine politics. His treatment of the site’s history is more journalistic than analytical.
Ten years ago, Chicagoans hotly debated the future of Soldier Field, then a National Historic Landmark and home to the Chicago Bears of the National Football League. The facility occupies a prominent site on Chicago’s lakefront. The Chicago Park District, the stadium’s municipal steward, decided to update and expand the complex. They proposed to demolish the stands and insert a modern seating bowl cantilevered over the original structure’s monumental classical colonnade, which was designed by Chicago architects Holabird and Roche in 1924. The park district maintained that retaining the colonnade preserved the critical historic element of the building. The National Park Service, in its role as National Historic Landmarks administrator and monitor, warned that the proposed plan involved too much demolition and change to historic elements, and jeopardized its National Historic Landmark status.
Reactions were immediate and controversial. Both the Chicago and the national architectural and preservation communities weighed in. The new structure centered on a sleek and striking design by Benjamin Wood of HOK Sport in collaboration with Chicago-based Goettsch Partners, Inc. Some criticized the project as bad historic preservation, while others maintained that it was good modern design that incorporated historic elements. After the completion of the new construction, the Secretary of the Interior, on the advice of the National Park System Advisory Board, revoked the stadium’s National Historic Landmark designation1 in April 2006.
Ford’s Introduction places the stadium’s original construction in the context of American progressivism and the City Beautiful movement, including Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. The contemporary renovation project is covered only in the last chapter of the book, and the design issues are mentioned only in passing. Ford does not evidence a strong point of view on the renovations, but he does state in the preface that “even the most historic and beautiful buildings must sometimes be remade when they no longer serve their original purpose” (p. xiv).
The narrative of the events that took place at the stadium is interesting in its own right. Soldier Field served as a stage for a kaleidoscope of American cultural history of the 20th century. It hosted the Army-Navy game in 1925; speeches by presidents and politicians, including Franklin Roosevelt in 1944; high school and college football championships, including historically black colleges; track and field; athletic competitions among German Turnerbunds and Czech-Slovak Sokols; polo matches; boxing, including the “long count” match between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney in 1927; speeches by Charles Lindbergh and General Douglas MacArthur; the 1926 international Eucharistic Congress and 1954 Catholic Holy Hour; Easter sunrise services; the 1942 Army War Show and 1945 war bond show; fire and police skill demonstrations; musical competitions (which supposedly started the tradition of lighting matches and lighters at concerts); Independence Day events; ethnic heritage pageants associated with the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition: Judaism’s The Romance of a People and the African American O, Sing a New Song; rodeos; rallies with the Reverend Billy Graham; the 1959 Pan Am Games; Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1966 speech at a Freedom Movement rally; the first Special Olympics in 1968; as well as professional soccer and auto racing. Ultimately, the shift of most popular events to indoor venues meant that the stadium had little use other than hosting football games.
This detailed focus on Soldier Field as a venue for public events does not easily translate into discussions of national context or synthesis, as the individual events are connected only by their location. Though Ford does not focus heavily on the topic, some of the event narratives touch upon the meaning of Soldier Field as a memorial to those lost in World War I, and how its physical features, including its neo-Classical colonnade, contribute to that meaning. For instance, there was some opposition to hosting the Dempsey-Tunney fight there in 1927, as being inappropriate in a memorial setting to the fallen American soldiers of World War I. At the time, the American Legion suggested building a separate memorial at the stadium, instead of requiring the stadium itself to function as a memorial. This idea was revived during the 21st-century renovation with the building of a separate, adjacent memorial. Notably, Holabird and Roche’s original design included a monumental memorial tower, which was not built because of cost. Ford states that in the late 20th century, Chicagoans thought of Soldier Field’s colonnades as the main memorial element of the construction, but he does not substantiate or discuss this idea any further.
Ultimately, the book is (as the subtitle suggests) as much about Chicago’s evolving ethnicity and politics as it is about Soldier Field itself. As its review in Choice in February of 2010 stated, it is well written, illustrated, and documented, and looks at Soldier Field “in the context of the national appetite for construction of municipal stadiums in the 1920s.” However, the definitive story of the Soldier Field preservation controversy still remains to be written.
National Park Service
1. The property’s NHL designation was as Grant Park Stadium, its original name.