A Stadium in the Park

Soldier Field in Chicago

By Kyle Ryan

Chicago's (in)famous old stadiums have been replaced one by one. Comiskey Park gave way to U.S. Cellular Field. Chicago Stadium was razed to build the United Center. Only Wrigley Field, due to its legacy and fame, has withstood more or less intact. The other holdout, Soldier Field, home to the NFL's Chicago Bears, is a much different place now than it was when it opened in 1924.

Notorious for its uncomfortable seating, lack of bathrooms and poor sight lines, it had numerous renovations over the years, but by 2001, Soldier Field was hopelessly outdated. But its aura and role as a memorial to the men and women of the armed forces spared Soldier Field from the fate of Chicago Stadium and Comiskey Park. The new stadium would be built inside the old.

When the Bears played the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football last September, the Soldier Field that greeted the nation was vastly different from its predecessor.

Architects Wood + Zapata created a sleek, modern-looking, rounded stadium rising above the classically designed rectangle of old Soldier Field. There were twice as many restrooms and four times as many concession stands. There were 60 percent more seats on the sidelines. There were two 23-foot-by-82-foot video screens. There were wider aisles, whole new areas, new roads and parkland around the stadium.

There were also new bugs to work out. Fans could enter at any gate, but that could make for long walks to their seats. Staff was redeployed, and signage posted outside the stadium to prevent that. To alleviate any bottlenecks at the turnstiles, stadium officials opened new gates.

"Over the first several games, we tweaked the pedestrian traffic plan for accessing and exiting the stadium to provide fans with the most convenient options," says Linda Daly, capital projects manager for the Chicago Park District, which owns Soldier Field.

For the most part, the new stadium's first season was a smooth one—a good thing, considering it cost $606 million.

Part of the city's Lakefront Redevelopment Plan, the renovation included construction of underground parking garages and 17 new acres of lakefront parkland. Of that, the Bears paid $200 million and were responsible for any cost overruns—about $50 million, according to Daly—in exchange for control of the building process.

"The structure of this redevelopment was quite different with having the Chicago Bears essentially act as the 'developer,'" Daly says.

Soldier Field was no stranger to renovations. The largest took place in 1979, eight years after the Bears moved in (they previously played at Wrigley Field), when lights were reworked, artificial turf installed, and locker rooms, seats and sightlines upgraded. Within three years more restrooms and concession stands were added. At the end of the 1980s, the grass replaced artificial turf, 116 skyboxes were built, and capacity was nearly 67,000.

This time around, designers kept grass for the new stadium. The grass sits on top of an 8-inch root zone (a mixture of sand, peat moss and a special soil additive) and 4 inches of gravel. Profile Products of Buffalo Grove, Ill., makes the porous ceramic soil additive, which is designed to enhance root growth, improve drainage and prevent compaction. The Bears had been using it on their practice field in suburban Chicago before bringing it to Soldier Field.

The stadium's shell and turf may have stayed the same, but capacity didn't. After construction finished in 2003, capacity dropped to 61,500, making Soldier Field the second smallest stadium in the NFL. (The Indianapolis Colts' RCA Dome has 56,127.)

"They had a limited space to work with in building this," says Luca Serra, sales manager for Soldier Field. "They tried everything they could to put more seats in it, but at some point you got to stop, otherwise you compromise the integrity of the stadium."

Although the stadium may have fewer seats, Serra says better seats make up for it.

"The nicest feature of the stadium is the sightlines and how close you are to the action compared to the old stadium," he says. "The sightlines are better here than anywhere in the NFL."

Improved sightlines help make the stadium a more viable multiuse facility. The Chicago Fire, the city's pro soccer team, also calls Soldier Field home. The stadium hosts concerts (it has a new 640-speaker, 500,000-watt sound system) and other events, too. Last Halloween, thousands came out to watch Psycho on the stadium's big screens, and there will be a snowboard competition and Easter egg hunt there this spring.

The new stadium also has numerous areas for private events year-round.

"With the design of the new stadium, we have a tremendous ability to generate new revenue that wasn't possible in the design of the old stadium," Daly says.

In that old design, the colonnades on the east and west sides of the stadium were closed to the public. Now open, they provide a dramatic outdoor environment for events.

During Chicago's notorious winters, people can head into the 100,000-square-foot Cadillac Club. Its main dining room, located beneath the East Colonnade, is flanked on its north and south ends by jumbo-sized television screens. For events that don't need as much space, there are smaller rooms available. The club level opens directly into the underground north parking garage, so people can drive into the garage and enter the club without having to face the elements.

The new stadium also has 133 luxury suites, each with a capacity for 16 people. The suites have great views of the Chicago skyline, among other things: leather seats, chafing dishes, private bathrooms and closet, three TVs (one of them a widescreen plasma), and a refrigerator.

Below the suites is the Cadillac Club area, the top level of which opens out onto the East Colonnade. To the south is another new area. In the old stadium, the south side mainly served as an entryway. Workers gutted it, keeping only the exterior wall and columns.

The tops of the interior walls feature giant pictures of soldiers, and stone benches built into the base of the walls have quotes and military medals inscribed in them. There's also a statue of a World War I doughboy.

"A big part of the stadium was not to just make it a memorial by virtue of its name, but to really accentuate the name with different areas such as this," Serra says. The north side of the stadium has a water wall with medallions representing each branch of the armed services.

The focus shifts to Bears history on the west side of the stadium. In the Bear Den, the ground is painted to resemble a football field, and panels showing the Bears through the decades hang on the walls.

With so much to see and so many options for events, the caretakers of Soldier Field expect to be busy for years to come.

"A lot of people just love to come and see it," says Serra, whose office is in the stadium. "It's a thrill, so our honeymoon's going to last a little while."

For more information
Soldier Field: www.soldierfield.net
Profile Products LLC: 847-215-1144



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