Millennium Park turns 10: Here are 5 things you never knew about it

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Ten years ago tonight, Chicago officially opened Millennium Park, a 24.5 acre section of North Grant Park between the Lake and Michigan Avenue. Today, it’s hard to find people who are not family with "The Bean", the Crown Fountain, and Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion.  But, WGN’s Steve Sanders found there’s more to Millennium Park than meets the eye.

“Watch out for this one little step here. So we’re at the highest elevation in Pritzker metal ribbons that you can be.” Ed Uhlir takes us on a tour few will ever see, across a catwalk 60 feet above the Pritzker stage, and a view of Lake Michigan you can’t get anywhere else.

“This gives you the grand vision.” Uhlir was hand-picked by Mayor Richard M. Daley to be the project design director and master planner for Millennium Park.  He now heads the Millennium Park Foundation.“His pitch was, “I’d like you to do this Ed.  It’ll take 2 years.” I’m still here like 16 years later.”

The grand opening on July 16, 2004, missed the millennium by four years.  And the price skyrocketed.  Chicago’s wealthiest families were convinced they should spend their money in the city where they’d made their fortunes, on a park everyone could enjoy.  They would pay, if the city changed the original design, and dropped the name; Lakefront Gardens. “They wanted to have a design that was moving architecture, planning, art  into the next Millennium rather than backwards a couple millenniums,” says Uhlir. “We got Frank Gehry to do the pavilion. And then that started a whole evolution of changes to the original design to include some of the best in the world, like Anish Kapoor, and Jaume Plensa.” Today, everything at Millennium Park is free, and 100% accessible.  It’s won scores of design awards, and brings in 1.2 billion a year in tourism dollars.  “When it was first put into place, it had all the seams.”

Marcia Aduss of Chicago is one of many volunteers at the park.  Her role is giving away free tours twice a day.  “I really enjoy taking people around and showing them my city.” With Marcia’s help, people all over the world have fallen in love with “The Bean,” the affectionate name for Anish Kapoor’s “Cloudgate.”“Oh, this is great, ya.” says Australian Brad Johnston.

The original plan called for “The Bean” to be in Lurie Garden.  With all the foot traffic, the garden would surely have been trampled. “There must be a million of these,” says Mamon Gibson, one of Chicago Public School’s first male kindergarten teachers.  Now retired, he’s a volunteer gardener, working in a piece of paradise amid the skyscrapers. “There are a lot of people didn’t know it existed you know.  So, when you say 10 years they say “where have we been?”

Just east of Lurie Garden, the man with the keys this time takes us inside the 50 foot high Crown Fountain. “And this is the only way to get in and out, through this hatch. So, you see water cascading down all four sides right now. The LED’s which have the faces on them are behind us.  So it’s really in effect like a giant TV.”

Ed Uhlir’s own face is one of the thousand Chicagoans who appear randomly and spit water.  He says the city recruited community people to represent Chicago’s demographics, acquired the Star Wars movie camera, and the director took it from there “They put you in a dentist chair actually, so you had to keep head very still. They would the tell you to blink.  Or at the very end of your taping they would say pretend you’re blowing out a candle.”

Joining the thousand faces this summer are four more faces, created for the 10th anniversary by original sculptor Jaume Plensa.  Three of them overlook the Crown Fountain. The largest, almost 40 feet high, greets park visitors from the West at Michigan Avenue and Madison. “Temporary sculpture exhibitions are something that makes the park alive every couple years.”

While the fountain has become Chicago’s water theme park, the Pritzker Pavilion has become the city’s summertime free music gathering spot. Uhlir calls the pavilion, “The best outdoor sound system in the world,” and the titanium ribbons are purely decorative.  There are no geese problems at the park either.  That metal trellis scares them.  Again, high above the Pritzker Pavilion, we can see Maggie Daley Park taking shape, much like Millennium Park did more than a decade ago. This was part of Mayor Daley’s park dedication on July 16, 2004.

“We took an eyesore we turned it, we- turned into a showplace of architecture, arts, and a grand public space, that will be the envy of any other city in the world.”  “A lot of governments come here. “ says Uhlir.  “They want to see how Chicago did it.  I don’t think it’s possible to do it to this to such an extent anywhere else in the world except in Chicago.”

Ten years later, millions around the world would agree.  Steve Sanders, WGN News.

Chicago has planned a summer long celebration with a free movie or concert almost every night.  And you can see the transformation from a rail yard and parking lot to the park, in an outdoor historic photo exhibit near Michigan and Randolph.   Find out more information at the links below.  And click on the additional videos to find out which artist’s idea came in second to “The Bean,” and the chances of YOUR face being on the Crown Fountain in the future.

Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalists Mike D'Angelo and Steve Scheuer contributed to this report.










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