The Giant History of McCormick Place

The history of McCormick Place is packed with one big disaster and tons of ambition. According to its website, nearly 3 million people visit the vast complex every year. Perhaps only the grounds of the 1893 and 1933 World’s Fair have held so many visitors. And yet, for both visitors and locals alike, McCormick Place is likely a somewhat anonymous spot. After all, few people wonder about the history of a place that feels brand new. But, oh, the story is juicy!

We research stories from Chicago history, architecture and culture like this while developing our live virtual tours, in-person private tours, and custom content for corporate events. You can join us to experience Chicago’s stories in-person or online. We can also create custom tours and original content about this Chicago topic and countless others.

history of mccormick place grand concourse interior
The interior of the Grand Concourse at McCormick Place. Image via Wikimedia.

 Col. McCormick and the Century of Progress

history of mccormick place col robert mccormick
Col. Robert McCormick, the publisher of the Tribune, first proposed the convention center which bears his name. Image via Wikimedia.

As with many of Chicago’s biggest endeavors, the history of McCormick Place starts with a world’s fair and the McCormick family. The McCormick family had risen in Chicago thanks to the wealth generated by their industrialized farming machinery business.

The ideas first formed in the mind of Col. Robert McCormick in the late 1920’s. This was during the run-up to the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition. That event, which ran for two years, brought millions of visitors and 1,500 conventions to Chicago.

Col. McCormick was the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, making him among the region’s most influential figures. According to the Tribune’s history, he foresaw that massive business conventions would become a regular, annual necessity in the near future. So, supposedly as early as 1927, he argued that Chicago should have a purpose-built convention center. It would take another three decades, but his vision would pay off eventually.

The Great McCormick Place Fire

The original McCormick Place opened on the lakefront in November 1960.  The end-result of decades of politicking, it had cost the city and state $35 million (nearly $300 million in 2017). But the massive, gleaming-white structure was an engineering marvel. Huge exhibitions, like the annual Auto Show and Home and Garden Show, were already lining up to use the space. A Tribune reporter memorably said it was “larger than Circus Maximus of ancient Rome and more durable than the Colosseum.” About that…

massive fire destroyed McCormick Place barely six years after it opened. On a frigid night in January 1967, janitors noticed smoke around 2:00 AM. By the time the Chicago Fire Department arrived the huge building was beyond saving. Upon hearing the news, Mayor Daley intoned, “This is a tragic loss to the people of Chicago. But remember the Chicago fire of 1871. The people recovered from that one.” The history of McCormick Place, as it turns out, would involve a lot more than mere recovery.

history of mccormick place exterior
The massive Grand Concourse at the heart of McCormick Place. Image via Andy Gregorowicz on flickr

(Re)building and the Politics of Urban Renewal

McCormick Place reopened four years later with a controversial work of high modernism. The Lakeside Center, as it’s now known, was built on the foundation of the destroyed original. For me, the dramatically cantilevered roof and glowering black steel make it a fascinating and beautiful work of architecture (at least for some people!). But I’ll also acknowledge that this structure, one of Chicago’s last in the International Style of Modernism that Mies van der Rohe pioneered, feels out of place on the lakefront. It has no direct neighbors and seems to squat when the location calls for soaring.

Subsequent additions over the course of the history of McCormick Place would bear out that criticism. Once per decade, starting in 1986, a succession of humungous new buildings were constructed across Lake Shore Drive from the Lakeside Center. Whereas the older building emphasized the horizontal, the newer McCormick Place buildings have stressed their vertical lines. It makes them feel visually closer to the skyscrapers of downtown. The Grand Concourse, which brings most guests into the massive halls of the North and South Buildings is especially fetching and famous.

McCormick Square and a New Entertainment Era

All the additions have made McCormick Place into the largest convention center in the United States. But the additions and redevelopment have always been a lightning rod for controversy. Much of that comes from McCormick Place’s location right across the I-55 freeway from Bronzeville. Not-so-accidentally-placed freeway overpass bridges walled this historically African-American neighborhood off from the gleaming convention center. The effect, seemingly, has been to make McCormick into a corporate island apart from its poorer, black neighbors. By contrast, the development of McCormick Place may have helped spur the gentrification of the Prairie Avenue district just to its (unimpeded) north.

history of mccormick place motor row mccormick square
The historic Motor Row is now part of the new McCormick Square “neighborhood.” Image via Wikimedia.

The just-opened additions of the Marquis Marriott hotel and Wintrust Arena continue this once-per-decade cycle of additions and updates in the history of McCormick Place. But we’re also seeing a new dimension to this anodyne corporate sphere. McPier, the government agency that runs McCormick Place and Nayy Pier, decided to rename the whole neighborhood. Thus was “McCormick Square” born. This “new” neighborhood encompasses the convention center and its new hotel and arena. The old Motor Row strip along Michigan Avenue, where many buildings are being reopened as bars, restaurants, and clubs, is also in McCormick Square.

Increasingly, the goal seems to be to integrate McCormick Place into the fabric of daily city life. I’ll be curious to see how many locals spend their time and money there in the future. If anything, be sure to check back in ten years when the next massive addition just might be underway.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

be a



Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

Book a chicago event

Let’s Connect!