In 1919, the South Park Commission held a design competition for what was originally envisioned as a central gathering place "for events and a playground for the people." The architecture firm Holabird & Roche won the competition and designed a U-shaped stadium in neoclassical style, complete with matched Doric colonnades that opened on October 9, 1924 as the Grant Park Municipal Stadium. Its sobriquet was changed one year later to honor soldiers lost in World War I. The ceremony to mark the change was held on Armistice (now Veterans') Day and began with a firing of guns at sunrise, a 21-gun salute at 11 a.m. aside from the parades and ceremonial flag-raisings.
Though it opened in 1924, the stadium wasn't completed until a third phase of construction concluded in 1939, giving it an ultimate capacity of 74,280 bleacher seats constructed out of fir planking. For special events, additional seating could be added to the end zones bringing the stadium's potential audience capacity to somewhere in the range of 100,000 attendees, though even that figure was occasionally topped by a special event.
Today, Soldier Field remains one of the few stadiums still standing from the storied "Golden Age" of sports. The stadium was designed for flexibility, and it hosted everything from visits by heads of state, to football games, boxing matches, stock car races, and even ski jump competitions. Its pre-Bears history is rich: the Monsters of the Midway didn't even move in until 1971.
The event featured a formal dedication and official opening with a mock battle, a horse-riding exhibition from the U.S. 14th Cavalry, and a re-enactment of the fire complete with a cow kicking over Mrs. O'Leary's lantern. Ten firemen who had actually fought the great fire used the city's first pump engine against the mock blaze in which a replica O'Leary barn was burned down. Some variation of this event was held there until 1970.
One of the earliest notable events was the boxing match between heavyweight champion Gene Tunney and former champion Jack Dempsey on September 22, 1927. The fight was a rematch from the previous year when Tunney defeated Dempsey, the favorite.
The rematch drew a gate of $2,658,660 ($22 million today) and set a simultaneous record for the first $1 million gate and the first $2 million gate. The fight has gone down in history for a controversial decision by a referee in the seventh round when Dempsey knocked Tunney down but the referee didn't begin the count until Dempsey had moved to a neutral corner, allowing Tunney extra time to recuperate. He went on to win the fight and spoil the hopes of many betting fans including, according to rumor, Al Capone.
Several years later, a war show celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of George Washington's birth was held June 24, 1932. It was an 11-day event opened by an 8 p.m. flyover by four squadrons of fighter planes (perhaps anticipating the Air & Water Show) escorting Amelia Earhart in a plane painted to resemble a red and white eagle. Earhart joined the famous who addressed crowds in the stadium when she later arrived to address and medal and recount her 1931 flight across the Atlantic Ocean to the crowd.
For some reason in 1947 auto racing in the field became popular. Both midget and stock car races were held within the field for years to come.
President Harry Truman made a trip to Soldier Field on June 19, 1949 to preside over the event marking the 75th anniversary of the Shriners, the first event at the stadium ever to be televised. The big anniversary celebration included one of the largest parades in the city's history, with 15,000 members of the fraternal order from 1,000 chapters and 130 bands. The parade covered three miles and lasted five hours culminating at the field.
But perhaps the largest event ever held at the field was the Marian Year tribute of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. It's estimated that 180,000 attendees were inside the stadium itself while another 80,000 listened outside on loudspeakers.
Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a Chicago Freedom Movement rally at the field June 21 1964 that drew 75,000.
In 1971, the Chicago Bears could be found playing games at Wrigley Field (home of the Cubs) but when the AFL and the NFL merged, new rules required fields that seat over 50,000. They'd originally intended to build a stadium in northwest suburban Arlington Heights but settled on moving into Solider Field instead. Some renovations were required first, including new end zone seating on the north which created a separate "North Field" section, which would later go on to host tennis tournaments. The Bears extended their lease with the Chicago Park District in 1978 for another twenty years, and began replacing Soldier Field's old plank seating with more modern stadium seating.
The field was imperiled when, in 1989, a proposal was made for a newer, domed stadium that would be built on the site. The Bears announced that it would consider moving to Indiana, and even purchased options on sites in suburban Aurora and Hoffman Estates to show the city that it was serious about leaving. The state legislature ultimately rejected the move.