Major League Baseball’s second-oldest ballpark is rapidly becoming MLB’s most updated ballpark, as the Chicago Cubs began their 2018 campaign by unveiling plenty of changes to the Friendly Confines.
Walk around Clark and Addison on the North Side and you’ll run into plenty of new construction, both from the Cubs and outside investors. The new entertainment plaza on the west side of the ballpark, which opened in 2017, is now branded as Gallagher Way, as the Cubs have sold naming rights to global insurance brokerage Gallagher. The space had been branded as The Park at Wrigley and features several bars, restaurants (including the Lucky Dorr), the obligatory Starbucks and a new Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream outpost. Go take a selfie at the neon holy cow at Jeni’s.
Across the ballpark on Clark is the Hotel Zachary, built on the old McDonald’s space. The hotel’s design screams historic Chicago (a trend we’re seeing across the city), not Bleacher Bum sports bar. The hotel is named for Wrigley Field architect Zachary Taylor Davis, with plenty of Cubs artwork in the 173 guest rooms. It’s positioned as a boutique hotel, and the room rates are priced appropriately. It’s worth a peek even if you’re not staying there, and it’s a place to catch a more refined cocktail experience than you’ll find in most of Wrigley Field. And yes, there’s a modern McDonald’s to replace the old one.
This isn’t the only new construction in the area: there’s also another large apartment/retail development on Clark and Addison covering 2.5 acres that will include movie theaters, a Lucky Strike bowling alley and a Shake Shack. The apartments are expected to be finished in August, with the rest of the retail spaces opening in October.
The Ultimate Ballpark Club?
Speaking of a design that screams historic Chicago: The Cubs unveiled the American Airlines 1914 Club during this week’s opening homestand. There’s been a renaissance in classic Chicago architecture stylings in recent years, both in terms of renovations and new construction. You can see those classic stylings at renovated facilities like the Chicago Athletic Association in the Loop, and you can see it now at the American Airlines 1914 Club. Located under the grandstand with new seating behind home plate, the American Airlines 1914 Club is the opposite of a sports bar: with only five televisions, a high-end menu, all-inclusive pricing and a cocktail-focused bar that might have a surprise or two under lock and key, it’s certainly unlike the bleacher culture found in most of Wrigley Field.
The American Airlines 1914 Club has a capacity approaching 700, according to Cubs officials, and it was designed not necessarily as a place to linger during a game (as Bat & Barrel, the new Target Field social space, is), but rather as a place to linger over a cocktail and some food before the game, as well as a place to grab a quick snack during the course of the game. Season ticketholders (who are paying between $32,400 and $56,295 per seat—and the Cubs are close to selling out the space) have a private entrance to the club, which sits below grade. Indeed, the Cubs needed to go 11 feet or so below grade to clear out space for the American Airlines 1914 Club. That, however, sets up a dramatic entrance to a space unexpected in a ballpark. After entering the ballpark at the VIP entrance near the iconic Wrigley Field marquee, guests will make their way across the concourse and then enter the club area at the top of a staircase. Think of it as finding the lush speakeasy in the back of the drugstore, with a design featuring plenty of dark woods, high-end accents and brickwork to match the rest of Wrigley Field. The ballpark scene of 1914 definitely would not have included an experience like American Airlines 1914 Club—but imagine if it did.
“As they make their way down the grand staircase, you start to see the influences of 1914 architecture that was relevant in Chicago at the time,” said Populous Principal Adam Stover on a tour of the new club. “You see that Louis Sullivan influence woven through [the space]. That was really important to us.”
Louis Sullivan was a seminal figure in Chicago architectural history. His style combined modernism (he employed and trained Frank Lloyd Wright) with a highly decorative sensibility, using forms based on designs found in nature. You can see that Sullivan sensibility in the decorative touches in the American Airlines 1914 Club, whether it’s large-scale decorative wall elements to the detailing on the staircases.
“As we were designing and building the story, we wanted every move to have a purpose,” Stover said. As an example: one decorative element in the club is a copy of Jacques Straub’s pioneering cocktail recipe book, Drinks, first published in 1914. Straub was the former
wine steward at The Blackstone in Chicago’s Loop, moving on to Louisville’s Pendennis Club, where the Old Fashioned cocktail was reportedly invented. As it ends up, concessionaire Levy Restaurants had a copy of the book and loaned it to the club for the season. It’s displayed at the American Airlines 1914 Club, opened (naturally) to the page listing the recipe for an Old Fashioned.
“We wanted a beautiful place with a story,” Stover said.
In addition to the large bar, there is a smaller retail kiosk, with items specifically designed for the club. Nearby are lockers for guests, who can store merchandise there or charge their devices (via built-in chargers), all protected with lock and key.
Being Chicago, there’s a dedicated pizza kitchen, as well as another large food-prep area. For those wanting something quickly, there are grab-and-go stations next to the ballpark entry area, featuring the likes of popcorn, Cracker Jack and other snacks. This is an all-inclusive ticket, of course, so no need to whip out the credit card.
“We surveyed our fans in our best seats three to four years ago and what they told us is that they love baseball and they just wanted more baseball, with less time waiting in a restroom line and concessions line,” said Colin Faulkner, Senior Vice President, Sales and Marketing for the Cubs. “They wanted to be able to get some food and get back to their seat, and they wanted a little more comfortable seat.”
That’s why the emphasis is on easy access to the seven rows of premium seating.
“They have the best seats in the ballpark, in what we think is the best ballpark, so they want to be in their seats,” Faulkner added.
And if folks want more privacy than is available in the American Airlines 1914 Club, there are also bunker suites—private rooms seating eight or so, which can used for private meetings and private game viewings.
American Airlines 1914 Club is not the only new club scheduled for Wrigley Field. Work on new first- and third-base clubs could be done at the end of season and possibly be available for any postseason play.
Other Upgrades: Concessions and Concourses
Many upgrades also came on the player side. The Cubs have put a priority on nicer player facilities in the past few years—new clubhouse, better batting cages—and this year the team installed new dugouts as part of an alteration of the grandstand space behind home plate to make room for the new club seating. The new dugouts are considerably larger than the old dugouts, while the visitors also have access to new batting cages.
The new club is not the only fan upgrade for 2018: indeed, almost every fan will be exposed to a better game experience. The WiFi has been amped up thanks to a new sponsorship deal with Comcast. The concourses have been overhauled, with many portable concessions stands removed and new lighting installed. This should, in theory, improve traffic flow and remove bottlenecks when it seems everyone is heading to a restroom or a beer stand. Permanent concession stands have been renovated, and with new cocktail and wine bars set to open this spring, there will be plenty of new options for fans to sample. Yes, you can have your Vienna Beef hot dogs, Budweiser and Old Style, but there are plenty of upscale options from the Cubs and Levy, focusing on what they call classic Chicago flavors. That would include house-smoked short ribs and pork shoulder; house-made pickles, chips, slaws and condiments; shaved beef; and creative twists on classic Chicago flavors. It also means new and returning partners, like Garrett Popcorn (yeah, you’ll go through a whole bag), sausages from Hot Doug’s in the Budweiser Bleachers, and Giordano’s deep-dish pizza, including a Wrigley Field exclusive pizza.
That’s a lot of change, and there will be more changes on tap for 2019. This is not your father’s Wrigley Field, but rather a transformed facility that honors the past while embracing the future. Philip (P.K.) Wrigley famously said that his team’s business was show business: “Our idea in advertising the game, and the fun, and the healthfulness of it, the sunshine and the relaxation, is to get the public to see ballgames, win or lose.” That same attitude has clearly been adopted by the Cubs ownership in 2018 and beyond.
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