Chicagoans know there’s nothing like being outdoors, once we’re able to shed the coats and gloves during milder months. Hosting a special event outdoors is icing on the proverbial cake.
Let’s start out on the water. Chicago’s First Lady features a stunning fleet of six custom-designed cruising vessels “with large, rounded sterns, oblong viewing windows, as well as upper decks designed to cruise under Chicago’s moving bridges,” says President Holly Agra. With boats that can accommodate 2 to 250 people, Chicago’s First Lady is known to many locals and tourists as the fleet used in partnership during the day for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s renowned tours. But at night, the fourth-generation, family-owned fleet transforms into private venues with jaw-dropping nighttime views for everything from weddings to political fundraisers. “You can depart from the Mag Mile and cruise on either the river, Lake Michigan or both,” shares Ms. Agra. Among those who’ve come aboard: German Chancellor Angela Merkel while hosting the Prime Minister of Spain during 2012’s NATO Summit.
Those willing to leave downtown and head west will love the Garfield Park Conservatory. Named one of the “best urban green spaces in North America” by USA Today, the Conservatory at 300 North Central Park Avenue on the West Side is open year-round. This lush, tropical paradise’s daytime rentals include two meeting rooms, while its landmark greenhouses are available for private events in the evenings – as is the entire facility.
The conservatory’s Horticulture Hall, Monet Gardens and Blue Stone Patio, are generally booked for larger events, while the Jensen Room and Community Room accommodate smaller parties. “The most unique feature is that it’s a conservatory – a garden under glass,” says Special Events Coordinator Joan Colon. “And the most unique service we offer is [built-in] décor. Lush greenhouses filled with plants and flowers leave no need to spend on décor – you have it all.”
Surround yourself with even more living nature when you host a private event at Lincoln Park Zoo. At Cannon Drive and Fullerton Parkway, the zoo offers 13 unique event spaces, with most “historic venues [like Café Brauer] featuring classic Chicago Prairie-style architecture…some with breathtaking city skyline views,” shares Sales Manager Carrie Woods. “The most unique feature is you can have your event alongside many of our unique collection of animals,” she says. “Just imagine dining next to an African lion or cocktailing with giraffes.”
The 49-acre zoo and Café Brauer play host to an incredibly diverse group of events each year, from weddings and concerts to movie nights and galas – and the entire zoo is available for rent. One huge advantage: rental fees are considered a ‘contribution’ to the zoo and are 40 percent tax-deductible. Better still, these fees help care for the animals and keep Lincoln Park one of the country’s last remaining free zoos.
And finally, if you’re looking to host an event in the city’s front yard, you can’t get much more high profile than Millennium Park. “The beauty of the surroundings and seasonal changes really add a unique element,” says Private Events Manager Jon Scott. “The different event spaces around the park give you many choices according to your needs. For example, the Rooftop Terrace is an area usually not open to the public, so you can create your own oasis within the park. You also have excellent photo opportunities with our public art and attractions such as Cloud Gate, Crown Fountain and Lurie Garden.”
But here’s a welcome surprise: “Some people aren’t aware you can have events on the actual stage of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion,” shares Mr. Scott. “You can do this year-round, as the glass doors can be closed and it is heated and air-conditioned. You can also rent the entire pavilion for a private concert. We hosted an event with an actual Learjet parked in the South Promenade tent, so the sky is literally the limit!”
From intimate, 20-guest dinners in rent-by-the-hour Wrigley Square to 1,000-person seated dinners in the North and South Promenade’s tented areas and Rooftop Terrace, Millennium Park’s got it covered. Like many other venues, this one offers substantially discounted rental rates to non-profit organizations. But unlike many others, says Mr. Scott, “We’re one of the few venues that allow you to bring your own alcohol.” It does, however, have to be served by a licensed caterer. What a way to save while dazzling your guests with picturesque landscapes and city views that are second to none.
By Carrie Williams & Maureen Jenkins