In the same way that its dark, boxy steel frame anchors the city's lakefront landscape, McCormick Place has become a pillar of Chicago's economy, helping to make it the convention capital of the world.
But the ground beneath that pillar is shifting and quickly.
Expansion across Lake Shore Drive in the 1980s and '90s almost quadrupled the facility's size in lighter shades of steel and concrete, but with equally imposing dimensions securing its standing as the largest convention center in the country, a magnet for millions of free-spending visitors to some of the largest trade shows.
Plans to build a 2.3 million-square-foot addition on the west side of the complex are intended to maintain that ranking.
But timing is everything. And the $850 million addition slated to get under way later this year, with 700,000 square feet for meetings and exhibits, couldn't come at a more challenging time. Business has dropped off as terrorism-related travel concerns and recession-era corporate belt-tightening keep exhibitors and attendees at home.
Meanwhile, warm-weather cities like Orlando, Fla., and Las Vegas have gunned for a piece of the action. And before the Sept. 11 attacks, O'Hare International Airport's growing reputation for delays threatened to erode Chicago's viability as a convention magnet. The current stalemate over O'Hare expansion gives little hope that the airport-delay issue will be resolved when, and if, air travel returns to pre-Sept. 11 levels.
Mayor Richard M. Daley's sudden decision earlier this year to close nearby Meigs Field has not helped the effort to move heavy hitters in and out of events at McCormick Place quickly and easily.
All those factors have conspired to push down the number of convention-goers at McCormick Place. According to industry experts, the 2002 total was off at least 10 percent, and perhaps as much as 20 percent, from 2001, which already had seen drops of 10-30 percent from previous years.
McCormick Place officials refuse to provide their own tallies. But no one disputes the basic fact that convention business is down in Chicago and throughout the United States.
And even minor declines ripple through the Chicago economy.
Hotels, which funnel valuable tax revenue to the state, have a glut of rooms available. Many hotels that perennially were filled during mega-shows such as the National Restaurant Association's annual mid-May event forcing some attendees to stay as far away as Milwaukee now routinely have rooms available as close to the show date as early May.
Restaurants, department stores, cab companies and other businesses that cater to tourists also are quick to notice when convention activity drops off.
At the same time, consolidation in industries that once drove the convention business hardware, manufacturing, consumer products, retailing have zapped potential exhibitors and attendees, shrinking the size of the average convention.
"You see it on the show floor," said Thomas M. Mobley Jr., general manager of McCormick Place since 1992. The National Hardware Show and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association show have downsized. Comdex, the computer technology show that thrived during the Internet boom, canceled its Chicago show last year.
The losses worry Chicago's business leaders.
"McCormick Place is a huge economic engine," said Gerald J. Roper, chief executive officer of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, who ran the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau from 1988-93. Unlike the city's residents, conventioneers make few demands on the economy, he said. We don't have to educate their children or throw out their garbage.
No matter how desirable convention visitors are, their numbers are shrinking. Since 1980, the number of exhibitors, the square footage they require and the number of attendees have declined steadily nationwide, according to Tradeshow Week, a Los Angeles-based industry publication.
What's left are smaller shows, and in that field, Chicago is competing with cities that once were considered out of its league too small and ill-equipped to handle heavy traffic.
Today, cities like Indianapolis and Denver, with lower labor rates and cheaper hotel rooms, represent stiff competition. Chicago and McCormick Place are on a tough road.
But from the start, the story of McCormick Place has been one of challenges, controversies and setbacks, many of which were overcome, however slowly.
The seeds of what eventually would become McCormick Place were sown in 1933 and 1934, when the Century of Progress Exhibition was held on 427 lake-front acres from 12th Street to 39th Street. Commemorating the 100th anniversary of Chicago's incorporation, the event drew thousands of people and generated millions of dollars for its sponsors.
In 1948 and '49, the Association of American Railroads held exhibitions on the same site, kindling an idea in the mind of Colonel Robert R. McCormick. As an heir to the McCormick family fortune - and, more important, as publisher of the Chicago Tribune - Colonel McCormick had the means to make his vision a reality.
Fairs like the Century of Progress, housed in temporary structures on a spectacular site like the lake front, were good for Chicago, the Colonel decided. Eventually, he resolved that a permanent lake-front exhibition hall would be better still.
He threw all the resources of the Chicago Tribune from its editorial pages to its considerable clout at City Hall, in civic circles and especially in Republican Springfield behind the project. In addition to pushing legislation to build a massive hall at 23rd Street and the lake front, he lobbied to create an agency that would oversee the project, and to secure the subsidies that would make it possible.
Colonel McCormick's ardor for the lakefront site at 23rd Street was not universally shared.
Conservation-minded critics contended that the lake front should remain free and open to the public, a vision articulated in architect Daniel Burnham's famous, but never fully realized, plan for the city.
Then there were those who argued that the site was too far from the central business district, established hotels and transit lines arguments that still seem relevant today, as the city continues to seek better links between the modern McCormick Place and the Loop.
Finally, the owners of private halls that played host to conventions, trade shows and exhibitions most notably, the International Amphitheatre in the Stockyards neighborhood weren't enthusiastic about the notion of a publicly financed competitor at any location.
But the Colonel and his allies ultimately prevailed, despite public opposition, court challenges and the sniping of the rival Chicago Daily News and Chicago American.
The Colonel didn't live to see the convention hall built, however. He died in March 1955. The hall, christened McCormick Place in recognition of the role he played in its creation, officially opened Nov. 18, 1960.
The story of the hall demonstrated, some said, the ruthlessness and the power of the Tribune, Harvard University political scientist Edward C. Banfield wrote in his 1961 book Political Influence: A New Theory of Urban Politics.
The hall was at 23rd Street, they said, because all who might effectively have opposed it - the governor, the mayor, the park district, the judges and most of the civic association leaders - were afraid of the Tribune, Banfield wrote.
That view, he contended, may have been a caricature in fact, many civic leaders were quite vocal in their opposition to the plan, despite the Tribune's eminence but it was the perception that lingered in the public mind long after the hall became a seemingly permanent fixture on the lake front.
The $41.8 million McCormick Place was designed to be the world's largest exhibition hall, with 320,000 square feet of exhibit space. Its planners had in mind a facility that would dwarf all competitors.
As Banfield put it: To get into any other hall in Chicago, a rider on an elephant would have to dismount, but to get into the new hall, he would not even have to duck his head.
Up in flames
While size was a chief priority, fire prevention was not. Ninety-two percent of the building, including the enormous exhibition hall, lacked sprinklers - a shortcoming that would prove disastrous on Jan. 16, 1967, when a janitor noticed smoke emanating from the back of a booth at 2:05 a.m. on the eve of the National Housewares Manufacturers Association show.
The fire department was called six minutes later. Ultimately, nine alarms were struck, bringing 500 firefighters and 94 pieces of equipment to the scene. The inferno effectively was snuffed out shortly before 10 a.m., but by then, only portions of the lower level and the theater were undamaged; the rest of the structure was destroyed. One security guard was killed.
Gene R. Summers, the architect who later would design the building that replaced the ruined hall, saw the burned-out shell, and in 1987 recalled the sight in an interview with the Art Institute of Chicago's Chicago Architects Oral History Project. I will never forget driving by McCormick, and this thing was flat, smoldering, he said. God, it was shocking.
In typical Chicago fashion, the city's leaders pledged to rebuild.
Summers agreed to design the new building if he would be given complete creative control. Though he received it, that didn't stop civic leaders from trying to influence his design and from questioning his ideas - especially his plan for a suspension structure that would enclose 583,000 square feet of exhibition space, with no support columns.
His structure, now known variously as the East Building or Lakeside Center, opened Jan. 3, 1971. The new building was twice as big as the original McCormick Place, with a roof spanning 18.5 acres. Not surprisingly, the new hall featured 40,000 sprinkler heads.