The selling of Soldier Field

August 11, 2010

Sickening. That's the only word to describe what's happening to Chicago's Soldier Field. The stadium was dedicated Nov. 27, 1926, following the annual Army-Navy game (which ended in a 21-21 tie), to honor our soldiers and sailors who died in the Great War. The morning after Veteran's Day, I visited the construction site to witness first-hand the $606 million calamity occurring there.

Which is worse, to tear down monuments like Soldier Field or to debauch them in the manner shown in the photograph? That steelwork soon will be clad to form a giant bowl — yes, it is already called the Toilet Bowl — literally overshadowing the neoclassical colonnades. Judge for yourself.

I'm no preservation purist. I don't believe that everything old must be saved. That kind of rabid conservationism inhibits progress. Cities, especially cities of great architectural heritage like Chicago, are vibrant, breathing organisms, and sometimes you have to cut out a tumor to save the patient.

No one could deny that Soldier Field was in critical need of major surgery, not just a facelift. Structurally, the building was a lawsuit waiting to be filed. Everything from the press boxes to the concession stands to the bathrooms was decades behind the times. But that doesn't excuse the "solution" that has emerged from the ground.

It all gets down to one word: greed. For the National Football League, the Chicago Park District, and the McCaskey family, which owns the Bears, the demand for skyboxes and other revenue enhancements simply forced the project to extremes. Nor is it entirely the fault of architect Dirk Lohan, given the program his firm was asked to deliver.

There is a movement afoot among strict conservationists to remove Soldier Field's designation on the National Trust list, but in my opinion, it's too late, and it might even open the door to pulling down the colonnades. Despite the well-meant efforts of civic groups like Friends of the Parks, the work is going ahead, and nothing's going to stop it.

The puzzle in all this is Richard M. Daley. Now in his fourteenth year as mayor, his progressive appointment of women and minorities to key positions in City Hall and his rescue of the Chicago Public Schools, once rated the worst in the nation, alone would be evidence enough that "Richie" is ten times the mayor his father was.

While Boss Daley often beat down opponents with the question, "How many trees did you plant today?" there is no question about his son's commitment to improving the physical texture of the city. He makes mistakes — a ridiculous program to fence in practically every park and playground with four-foot-high wrought iron is just one — but his heart is usually in the right place. Except perhaps in this case.

No, there's only one hope, and it is that someday, perhaps 20 or 30 years hence, some future mayor will look at the monstrosity under construction today and ask, "How could this have happened?"

Then he or she will bring together the political and economic forces needed to gut the bowels and restore Soldier Field to its original grandeur.

Until then, just looking at it makes me sick.


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