The Museum Campus
Generations of Chicagoans and visitors have explored the Museum Campus to engage with Chicago’s prime cultural, nature, and sporting offerings. Situated in the heart of Chicago adjacent to the Loop’s business and entertainment district, the site occupies an urban lakefront oasis unique among world’s global cities. Today's Campus has greatly evolved since its earliest conception in 1909, and in Chicago’s great tradition of innovation, it has undergone many transformations. Understanding the origins of this dynamic destination is critical to contextualizing the vision for the Campus’ next chapter.
When the prominent architecture team Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett released the Plan of Chicago in 1909, it included a vision of Northerly Island as a nature haven. As construction on the man-made island proceeded, the Illinois Central Railroad offered the City land it had reclaimed from the lake.
This land, gifted in 1911, spread from the southern edge of Grant Park to south of 12th Street and was to be used to erect the Field Museum. The first project in a flurry of major activity on the Campus, the Field Museum opened in 1921. In rapid succession, Soldier Field opened in 1924, Northerly Island's initial construction ended in 1925, and the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium were opened in 1930. With these institutions newly open to the public, Chicago secured its place as a leader in innovation and was chosen to host its second world fair. Under the motto "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts", the 1933-1934 Century of Progress World’s Fair introduced over 40 million visitors to this new and exciting part of Chicago.
In 1938, the Works Progress Administration connected Northerly Island to the Campus mainland with a causeway to create the peninsula present today. A decade later, the peninsula was reconfigured into the Merrill C. Meigs Field Airport, a decision spurred by World War II aviation developments and the prior vision of Edward H. Bennett.
Mirroring the activity in the 1920s, the 1990s ushered in three decades of major changes to the Museum Campus. Mayor Richard M. Daley announced plans to close the airport and replace it with a park in 1996. Major construction completed in 1998 rerouted northbound Lake Shore Drive to the west of the major institutions. This allowed for uninterrupted space connecting all the land from the Field Museum to McCormick Lakeside Center (built between 1968-1971) and established the boundary of the Museum Campus known today.
Soldier Field was renovated between 2002 and 2003 to modernize the stadium while retaining much of the historic architecture. In 2003, the promised removal of the Merrill C. Meigs Field Airport began, and the site was converted to parkland with the 2005 addition of a temporary concert venue, known currently as the Huntington Bank Pavilion. Inspired by Burnham's vision of Northerly Island as a natural site, the architecture firm Studio Gang released its visionary Northerly Island Framework Plan in 2011. Limited parts of the plan, such as the introduction of native landscaping and a lagoon-like pond, were implemented in 2015 with the support of the Army Corps of Engineers in parallel with their efforts to control lakefront erosion.
From its birth in Burnham and Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, the Museum Campus has played a formative role in crafting the spirit of Chicago. It is the working group’s goal to build upon this legacy and lay a path that continues to evolve this incredible asset for the benefit of future generations of Chicagoans.
Field Museum – Opened in 1921 as part of the original Burnham and Bennett 1909 Plan of Chicago, the Field Museum is a major hub for research, educational and cultural programming, and environmental work. As of 2019, its annual visitorship is about 1.3 million people and it employs roughly 150 scientists in its labs.
Shedd Aquarium – Opened in 1930 as one of the first inland aquariums in the world, the Shedd welcomed close to 1.9 million guests in 2019. Today, it houses more than 100 animal species from around the globe. In addition to educational, cultural, and animal-encounter programming, the aquarium is heavily engaged in conservation efforts and field research.
Adler Planetarium – Adler Planetarium opened its doors in 1930 as the first planetarium in the western hemisphere. Welcoming nearly 500,000 guests per year, the space science center includes the institution’s landmark museum and observatory complex; two planetarium dome theaters; one of the world’s leading collections documenting the history of astronomical science; and an award-winning digital platform that engages millions of people around the globe.
Soldier Field – The oldest stadium in the NFL, Soldier Field opened in 1924. Following its 2003 renovation, Soldier Field’s capacity increased from 45,000 to 61,500. Soldier Field hosts an estimated 194 events annually, welcoming almost 1.4 million people. It has two primary tenants—the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer—and regularly hosts major concerts and other entertainment events.
McCormick Place Lakeside Center – Completed in 1971, Lakeside Center is a convention and event space with a total of 580,000 square feet of exhibit space and 141,000 square feet of meeting space. It includes a ballroom, a landscaped deck, and a state-of-the-art theater. Lakeside Center is part of the McCormick Place Convention Center, the largest convention center in North America, which saw nearly 3 million visitors in 2019.
McCormick Place Bird Sanctuary – Occupying 6 acres of land on top of an underground parking lot for McCormick Place, the Bird Sanctuary opened as part of the Burnham Wildlife Corridor in 2003. An important migration stop for millions of birds, it comprises native prairie and woodland plant species.
Northerly Island: Park and Huntington Bank Pavilion – The brainchild of Daniel Burnham, Northerly Island opened in 1925 and was transformed into a peninsula in 1938. Northerly Island’s 40-acre park, encompassing nearly half of the peninsula’s 91 total acres, opened on the southern part of the island in 2015, after the site’s roughly 50-year stint as an airport ended in 2003. Located on the northern portion of the peninsula, Huntington Bank Pavilion is a 30,000-person capacity outdoor amphitheater with views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline.