Thousands of people flocked to Millennium Park's gala opening Friday night to see for themselves if the mega-project was worth $475 million and a six-year wait.
Beneath a sometimes threatening summer sky, people tried to take in all the 24.5-acre park has to offer. They touched Cloud Gate, finally freed of its enclosure and fence. They lounged on the Great Lawn and strolled through the Lurie Garden, where the planting had been completed only hours before.
They were drawn to the Crown Fountain, where children and adults were equally captivated--though for different reasons.
As water cascaded down the twin 50-foot towers, adults stood off to the side, watching faces move in slow motion on the giant screens concealed in glass block. Every 13 minutes, at the end of each face's video, the giant mouths would purse, and children would run to stand under the streams of water spouting onto the plaza.
"I love being able to have kids and adults enjoy different aspects of the same environment," said Jane Levy, 59, from Berkeley, Calif., who sat on a bench with her husband just outside the Lurie Garden.
"It's just gorgeous," said Catherine Gross, 75, as her granddaughter Ashley, 12, dashed in and out of the streams of water.
Anticipation of the opening had been building for weeks, as workers unveiled the Anish Kapoor sculpture in its shining symmetry and began removing fences that kept the curious from straying into the still-active construction site.
Crews worked furiously to put the last touches on the park and to complete planting at the Lurie Garden, finishing about 11 a.m. Friday, said Ed Uhlir, project design coordinator on the park.
In recent days, tennis players at Daley Bicentennial Plaza--which links to Millennium via the Frank Gehry bridge--have been treated to the strains of the Grant Park Orchestra, practicing John Corigliano's "Midsummer Fanfare," a piece commissioned for the opening.
Many lounging on the park's Great Lawn Friday said they didn't quite get the soaring Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion and its curling headdress. But that didn't mean they disliked it.
Dr. Howard Weiss, 79, of Lincolnwood, along with his brother, Dr. Allen Weiss, 81, of Malibu, Calif., were among scores of people taking a gander at Gehry's outdoor concert venue Friday afternoon while waiting for the orchestra to start.
"It's striking," he said. "I don't know that I understand it, if there is something to understand about it. It's futuristic. It's fabulous. It's going to draw people to Chicago."
"I've never seen anything like this," said Rev. Zachaeus Kirangu, 32, of Jamaica, who was staying in Oak Park. "It's exciting. It's like a spirit."
The Gehry band shell will be the home of the orchestra and chorus, which will play concerts through August. Some seats are reserved for members of the Grant Park Music Festival, while others are free to the public. The lawn area also will be free.
Friday kicked off a three-day gala and a series of dedications of the park, which is packed with architectural elements.
The oldest portion of the park--an area of Grant Park along Michigan Avenue formerly dedicated to A.Montgomery Ward, who fought to keep Chicago's lakefront parks free of buildings and accessible to the public--started reopening as part of Millennium Park in the fall of 2001.
For three years, other parts of the park gradually opened--and in some cases, closed again. Two large sections--now the site of the Crown Fountain and the Bank One Promenade--were set with sod, and opened to visitors, but fenced off again, and the grass ripped up, to add the fountain and the concrete for the promenade.
"You have to come and walk around two or three times, for hours at a time, to really take it in," said Rita Simo, founder of The People's Music School in Uptown, as she waited for the concert to begin Friday night. "I've only been here half an hour, but I am definitely going to come back."
All day long Friday, people flocked to the park, and by 7 p.m., the band shell's great lawn, capable of holding 7,000 people, was packed. Dozens of Red Moon Theatre members, in flowing white and green robes, filed onto the pavilion's main stage, as glass doors covered with a giant red ribbon concealed the orchestra.
Then Mayor Richard Daley strode on stage with John Bryan, who spearheaded the private fundraising effort for the park, and Cindy Pritzker, whose family gave $15 million for the Gehry band shell.
"We took an eyesore. We turned it into a showplace of architecture, arts and a grand public space that will be the envy of any other city in the world," Daley said.
"These are not monuments or shrines. These are friendly places for people to come and congregate, to listen to music, get closer to nature, look at the reflections, and simply enjoy themselves in our great city," Daley said.