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Bowl of Contention

How successfully the new Soldier Field blends with the old facade is an open question

September 29, 2003|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — It has been called the Eyesore on the Lakeshore, the Monstrosity on the Midway, Acropolis meets Apocalypse.

The Chicago Bears simply call it home.

The new Soldier Field, an asymmetrical, $365-million stadium that's hideous to some and artistically intriguing to others, will make its national debut tonight when the Bears play host to the Green Bay Packers.

Joe Antunovich, a Chicago historic preservationist, called the project a "desecration" of a national landmark.

"We're stuck with what we have, which I believe is much less than we could have had," said Antunovich, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Council, which launched an unsuccessful lawsuit to stop the new stadium from being built. "It's an eyesore of the Nth degree. It's just awful."

But the Bears and Chicago officials who approved the stadium, the centerpiece of a $606-million lakefront renovation, believe skeptics are in the minority and that the vast majority of people will love the city's latest architectural offering -- especially when they see how it looks inside.

"We had 'Meet Your Seat' day at the stadium today, and there were between 20,000 and 30,000 Bears fans there," Barnaby Dinges, spokesman for the Lakefront Redevelopment Project, said Saturday. "I had TV reporters coming up to me saying they couldn't find a single person to say something bad about the stadium."

With massive structures of glistening steel and green glass dwarfing the trademark colonnades and familiar south wall, the stadium is a less-than-subtle blend of Ben-Hur and the Jetsons.

It replaces old Soldier Field, completed in 1924 and home to the Bears since 1971. Most of that stadium was demolished after a January 2002 playoff loss to Philadelphia, and the team played its home games last season at the University of Illinois in Champaign, about 120 miles south of Chicago.

Although the Bears paid for about a third of the total project and were responsible for cost overruns, they pay $5.6 million a year in rent. That's not to say the team was focused on philanthropy. NFL franchises with sweetheart stadium deals can make tens of millions more a year in local revenue than teams playing in older venues. The other two-thirds of the project cost is funded by public money in the form of the city's hotel-motel taxes.

Championed by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the project was pushed through the state legislature in less than two weeks in 2000.

It isn't the notion of a new stadium that bothers Antunovich. He said he would have supported the city spending even more on a stadium if the venue had a retractable roof so it would be better suited for harsh Chicago winters, and if it were located in an outlying area where it would have better freeway access and wouldn't compete with the legendary architecture downtown.

Even though it serves the NFL's second-largest market, the new Soldier Field is the league's second-smallest stadium, with a capacity of 61,500, which is 3,500 fewer than the venue it replaces. The smallest stadium is the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, which seats 55,506. In keeping with the NFL's desire to put top-dollar-paying fans closer to the action, Soldier Field features 60% of its seats on the sidelines, as opposed to 40% in the old place.

Designed by Boston architects Ben Wood and Carlos Zapata, the new venue is the league's only stadium with all of the suites and club seats on one side, and all the general-admission seats on the other. The asymmetry was achieved by making the west grandstand 20 feet higher than the east side, which is closer to the lake.

Four levels of $300,000-a-year luxury suites line the east side, and slope inward from top to bottom, giving people in the upper reaches the feeling of looking almost straight down on the field. Compared with its predecessor, the stadium has twice as many concession stands and more than twice the bathrooms.

Those creature comforts surely will appeal to fans. However, in an informal survey conducted by the Chicago Sun-Times, readers voted the stadium the city's ugliest building by a wide margin.

Wrote Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune: "Trouble is, the opulent interior and the outlandish 'Invasion of the Stadium Snatchers' exterior are part of the same, ill-considered package. And the exterior is a big-time poke in the eye, especially the bulbous west grandstand that weighs down brutally on Soldier Field's once-proud columns, as if William 'Refrigerator' Perry had plunked down his ample haunches atop a picket fence."

The new stadium is actually kinder to those columns. The old luxury suites were essentially resting on them, whereas now that weight has been removed. There are two new war memorials too, featured at both ends of the stadium. There's a life-sized doughboy statue of a World War I foot soldier at one end, and a 280-foot wall of green granite on the other end with water flowing over bronze war medallions.

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