The Nichols Bridgeway: More Than a Massive Downspout

The Nichols Bridgeway

The Nichols Bridgeway

Over the weekend, two of the city’s newest tourist attractions opened: The Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing , which we talked about Thursday, and the attached Nichols Bridgeway.  “Bridgeway,” by the way, is not a word.

The “bridgeway,” for lack of a better description, looks essentially an overgrown PVC drainage pipe drawing human runoff from the Art Institute and depositing it across Monroe Street in Millennium Park.  Or at least it would seem that way, if gravity was in charge.  In reality, traffic moves best from the park side to the museum side.  That’s because once a crowd of tourists arrives at the museum side, there is a series of escalators to smoothly move them from the third floor bridge lobby down to the main lobby of the museum where they can purchase tickets or visit the gift shop.

The Nichols BridgewayGoing the other way is an exercise in futility. You cannot get to the third floor bridge lobby from the third floor of the Art Institute.  Or the second.  It is only accessible from the first floor.  And then, only from outside the museum area, and only by a single elevator which is woefully inadequate for the hoards of tourists and their baby buggies trying to go the other way.

The Nichols Bridgeway was touted, in part, as a safe solution for moving tourists back and forth across Monroe between the Art Institute and the are near the Lurie Garden.  But it only works one way.  This is because anyone can use the bridge for free.  You can wander from Millennium Park up the bridge and end up in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute — but the newly arrived masses must be kept behind the ticketing and security barrier to prevent free access to the treasures inside.  It’s like the difference between the land side and the air side of an airport terminal.  Except in this case, arriving at the airport puts you as far as you can possibly get from the ticketing and check-in counters that you need to proceed into the rest of the facility.

The Nichols Bridgeway

The Nichols Bridgeway

It was all designed to be clean, and elegant, and very Buck Rogers.  It was not designed for mobility or to effectively transport 20 thousand shuffling tourists.  During Saturday’s grand opening, the most common question posed to the weary workers at the museum’s third floor terrace bar wasn’t, “Can I get a double latte?”  It was, “Where the heck is the stupid bridge?”

Every directional sign in the Modern Wing clearly states that access to the bridge on the third floor is from the first floor, but it’s so counterintuitive that the average tourist can be forgiven for thinking it’s a mistake.  And even when one is on the first floor, the bridge access area is ensconced down a side hallway around the back of the gift shop.

The other thing that puzzles is the notion of drainage.  Will the bridge be open when it rains?  Sure, Chicago isn’t Seattle.  But we do get an average of three feet of rain each year, and the Nichols Bridgeway looks designed to capture and move moisture rapidly into Millennium Park.

The Nichols Bridgeway

The Nichols Bridgeway

Toward the bottom of the bridge, pedestrians exit to the east through a little gangway, while water continues flowing to the end of the bridge.  In the photo above it looks like the bridge actually misses dumping its load into an existing drain by about two feet.  That’s something of an optical illusion, as the visible drain is well beyond the reach of the bridge.

What does exist is a tiny circular drain embedded deep in the grass right below the apex of the lip of the bridge.  Is it enough to handle the flow from a thunderstorm?  The surrounding grass will let us know over the next few months.  My uneducated guess is that we’ll see some gravel at the end of the bridge before the end of the year.

Clearly, the Art Institute is worried about water, too.  Security guards posted near and on the bridge are warning tourists to keep their water bottles closed when walking on the bridge.  They’re worried about people slipping and falling on the shiny new metal deck.  Maybe once the bridge is worn in that might not be a concern anymore.  But for now the bridge could face trouble whether the skies are wet, or the tourists are dry.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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