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Monster of the Midway

Associated Press

Ah, the architectural splendor of the city’s distinctive skyline: majestic towers, historic skyscrapers, elegant designs.

The spaceshiplike football stadium on the lakefront.

Chicago’s newest phenomenon, rebuilt Soldier Field, is getting scathing early reviews in a city that prides itself as a treasure trove of landmark buildings. So far, it’s been called the Eyesore on Lake Shore, Mistake on the Lake, Monstrosity on the Midway, a crash-landed flying saucer and a giant toilet bowl.

Talk about negative advance publicity, those epithets are all being uttered even before the stadium’s formal debut, a Sept. 29 Monday night game between the Bears and Green Bay Packers.

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Local officials and the Bears hope the $606 million stadium project will win fans over once they see the cozy interior and get to enjoy the newly created lakefront parkland.

But in a town sensitive to its rich architectural heritage, there’s a lot of grousing to overcome. Critics outnumber supporters in public comments to date about Soldier Field II; in an informal survey, Chicago Sun-Times readers voted it the city’s ugliest building by a wide margin.

At the Field Museum of Natural History, a short punt away along the Lake Michigan waterfront, visitors are stunned at the shiny, mammoth structure plunked down between the trademark Soldier Field colonnades next door.

“All the Chicago people say ‘It looks like a spaceship,’ ‘It looks horrendous,’ ” said Jesse Pena, who runs a hot dog stand by the museum’s front steps. “But then again, tourists come by and they like it. Me? I still don’t see what was wrong with the first one.”

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Overhauling a rickety, outdated stadium built in 1924 had become a growing priority over the years for the city and the Bears -- dating almost from the time the storied NFL franchise located there in 1971.

The project’s critics, for the most part, didn’t dispute that intent. But they say the ultra-modern new stadium bowl, with a towering overhang that looms above the old facade next to busy Lake Shore Drive, mocks the columns and destroys the dignity of the lakefront area around Chicago’s popular museum campus.

Opponents also were upset the Bears are paying for less than a third of the project, or $200 million. The rest is to be funded by revenue from the city’s hotel-motel tax.

Two groups -- The Friends of the Park and the Illinois Landmarks Preservation Council -- argued in a lawsuit that the legislation violated state laws governing public land. Unlike most recent results on the field, the Bears won that one in a case decided by the Illinois Supreme Court.

The verdict did little to still the clamor. A better team might have helped, but the Bears went a woeful 4-12 during a one-year exile in which they had to fly to “home” games in downstate Champaign; they were just 3-5 there.

Many season ticket-holders also remain steamed at having to pay one-time personal seat licenses -- starting at $765 to $8,500 each -- to help foot the bill.

Opponents of the architectural design are lobbying to have Soldier Field, the only major professional sports arena designated a National Historic Landmark, stripped of that status.

David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council, calls it “abominable.”

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“It’s even worse than it looked in the model,” he said. “Any success of the interior playing field and seating cannot mitigate for us the destruction that was done to a National Historic Landmark, and the damage the project has done to public trust.”

Even former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, while praising the field and seats after a recent tour, called the exterior “a little strange.”

“I guess that is modern art,” he said after a pause.

The stadium’s sponsors are confident the boos will soon turn to cheers.

Lee Bey, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff for planning and design, insists Mayor Richard Daley and company are “almost gleeful” at how well the project has turned out, including the addition of 17 acres of parkland around the stadium and public access to the colonnades.

“Every unique building in the city’s history ... goes through this brief period where people don’t like it,” he said. “The John Hancock Tower looked like a huge oil derrick” to the public when it was built, he said; now the distinctive skyscraper is a city icon.

The chief designers concluded a modern stadium couldn’t be built on the original Soldier Field site -- 150 feet narrower than most modern stadiums -- without making drastic changes around and over the colonnades.

Boston architect Ben Wood emphasized that the war memorial theme was retained and the columns might have been eliminated or “compromised even more” by other designers.

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“I think we did a masterful job of keeping the colonnades,” said Wood, who designed the stadium with partner Carlos Zapata -- their first. “It was not built as a monument, it’s a sports arena. To make football continue to be possible there, we needed to modernize it instead of mimicking the past.”

He predicts the new Soldier Field will usher in a new era of more fan-friendly stadiums. The amenities include wider seats and cantilevered scoreboards that jut out behind each end zone. There are more luxury boxes, while overall seating capacity was shrunk from 65,000 to 61,500. And there are twice as many toilets as before, which could alleviate the constant complaints about impossibly long restroom lines.

But what strikes a visitor most is how close the seats are to the field -- an average 40 feet closer than the old stadium.

“Football stadiums kept getting bigger and less intimate,” Wood said. “This is the first time one has gotten more intimate.”

While some local architects have joined in the stadium-bashing, others applaud the bold innovations. Ned Cramer, curator of the independent Chicago Architecture Foundation, compares the Soldier Field uproar to the one in Paris when a much-scorned iron tower was built.

“The Eiffel Tower caused an enormous hue and cry when it was created, and now it’s a beloved landmark,” he said. “One could anticipate that the same may someday be said of Soldier Field.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Rebuilt Soldier

* Opening date: Sept. 29, 2003 (Chicago Bears host Green Bay Packers).

* Cost: $606 million (stadium $365 million, parkland development $241 million).

* Funding: Chicago hotel-motel tax revenues plus $200 million from the Bears.

* Owner: Chicago Park District.

* Construction time: 20 months.

* Capacity: 61,500 (old Soldier Field: 65,000).

* Interior amenities: Wider seats, improved sightlines, average seat 40 feet closer to field, bigger scoreboards, 100,000-square-foot club lounge, more luxury boxes.

* Luxury boxes: 133 on four levels, with capacity of 2,384 plus standees. Cost $100,000-$300,000 per season.

* Club seats (padded seats with access to heated club lounges and dining rooms): 8,900.

* Highest seats above field: 140 feet (old stadium was 100 feet).

* Parking: 3,300 spaces underground plus 1,800 on surface (net gain of 1,000 from old stadium).


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