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Navy Pier Crystal Gardens eyed for immersive exhibit

If city officials sign off on the plan and the pier finalizes a lease with the New York-based company, the Crystal Gardens interior would turn into an “Illuminarium” display, a custom-designed spectacle “that surround visitors in a sensory space of sight, sound and scale unlike any other,” according to a recent announcement of the first such exhibit, which debuts July 1 in Atlanta.

“What museums are to art, cinemas to movies and concert halls to music, illuminariums are to experiential entertainment,” the group said in the announcement.

The plans come as the tourist hotspot reopens to the public and looks to lure back visitors after a public health crisis that pummeled the local hospitality sector. The city is counting on attractions like Navy Pier to help bring back leisure travelers to fill up local hotels that have spent the past 14 months on the financial brink.

The exhibit would follow a series of major updates to the pier in recent years under the “Centennial Vision” renovation plan, an effort that began a decade ago to redesign the venue as it approached its 100th anniversary in 2016. Plans have run into major delays and funding challenges—including a secret move by the city to divert tax-increment financing money toward renovations—but the pier has been transformed with a new park at its entrance, a boutique hotel, a new Ferris wheel, a revamped walkway along its southern edge and a new food court and main hall, among other projects.

“Navy Pier has long envisioned transforming Crystal Gardens into a year-round attraction,” said Payal Patel, spokeswoman for the nonprofit that operates the pier. “We’re looking at opportunities that would allow us to bring unique experiences and activate the space.”

The glassy, ​​one-acre structure has long been a botanical garden and hosted weddings and other catered events. The Navy Pier’s operator needs City Council to approve a change to the zoning guidelines that govern the pier in order to turn the space into a commercial exhibit, similar to the process it went through to expand its Shakespeare Theater or add the hotel, which opened this jump.

Patel said it’s unclear whether it would lease the space to any exhibitor for several years at once or whether it would function as a short-term, pop-up space for temporary exhibits. Illuminarium is the group “we’re currently working with to see if this process and what they’re potentially proposing could work,” she said.

Illuminarium Experiences Manager Christopher Renaud declined to comment. In addition to the group’s first exhibit—dubbed WILD: A Safari Experience—on Atlanta’s BeltLine, Illuminarium will open locations in Las Vegas and Miami next year, according to its website. Other exhibits are planned for New York City, Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles and Austin, as well as Chicago.

The plans come several months after the Immersive Van Gogh digital art exhibit made its US debut in Old Town, where the operator sold out of tickets through June, extended the exhibit’s stay and signed a five-year lease at the historic Germania Club property for future exhibits.

Patel said Illuminarium would be similar in nature to the Van Gogh exhibit but that the pier plans to continue to make the Crystal Gardens available for banquets and other events.


Chicago restaurateur Phil Stefani, whose company has leased event space at the Crystal Gardens since 1995, said pier officials may be getting ahead of themselves with plans for the exhibit.

He is fighting a lawsuit filed by NPI last October to evict his company from the property for failing to pay rent and expects a Cook County Circuit Court judge to rule on the matter June 9.

“Obviously they’re putting the cart ahead of the horse,” with negotiations for a new user while Stefani still leases the property, Stefani said.

Patel confirmed that NPI moved to terminate Stefani’s agreement and that the eviction lawsuit is pending.

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