Even as Chicago Municipal Pier was being built, the invention of mass-produced cars and trucks was beginning to wreak havoc on the package freight and passenger steamboat industries of Lake Michigan. The pier proved to be much more successful as a public gathering place. During the 1950s, it is estimated that an average of 3.2 million visitors frequented the pier annually, with peak attendance for the "Pageant of Progress". This decade is sometimes called the pier's "Golden Age".
The use of the pier for serious marine purposes reached a temporary peak during World War II, when the city leased the pier to the U.S. Navy. The Navy's air group training arm made the pier a quay for a pair of converted flattops, the U.S.S. Wolverine and the USS Sable (IX-81), which were used as freshwater trainee carriers. At this time, 60,000 sailors as well as 15,000 pilots including future President George H. W. Bush, used this area for training. In honor of this service, Chicago Municipal Pier's name was changed to Navy Pier.
With the war over, Navy Pier went to the University of Illinois, which used the facility beginning in 1946 for a two-year undergraduate program to educate returning veterans. During its University of Illinois days, Navy Pier was also the site of a string of public events. The International Exhibitions of the early 1960s drew attractions from around the world, including circus and folkloric dance acts, arts and crafts, and international cuisine. In 1965, the University moved to the Chicago Circle campus, and the pier again fell into disuse.
From 1965-1989, Navy Pier was considered an underutilized eyesore. No government agency in or around Chicago wanted to invest money in it. Many advocates, inspired by the Plan of Chicago and the pier's successful use as a public gathering place in the 1920s, called for its reconstruction.
In 1976, Navy Pier began its third life as an area for public exhibits, when the East Buildings (furthest into Lake Michigan) were opened as exhibition halls. Special events including music and arts festivals began to draw crowds to the pier despite its aging infrastructure.
From 1979 to 1987, a submarine, the USS Silversides, was docked at Navy Pier.
In 1989, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority took control over the pier. Major renovation and construction followed in the 1990s at a cost of US$200 million. As rebuilt in the 1990s, the pier's layout included fast-food kiosks, shops, a ballroom, a concert stage, and convention exhibition halls.
Centerpiece attractions include a -tall Ferris wheel, an IMAX theater, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Chicago Children's Museum, the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows, and at the entrance to Navy Pier is a statue of Oak Park comedian Bob Newhart, sponsored by the TV Land network.
The pier now features a large front lawn showcasing numerous larger-than-life public art sculptures and an interactive animated fountain created by WET (of Fountains of Bellagio fame). The pier continues to be used as an embarkation point for tour and excursion boats. One of its most popular yearly attraction is the tall ships Venetian Night festival.
The pier and its grounds encompass more than 50 acres of parks, gardens, shops, restaurants and other shore entertainment. Navy Pier contains 170,000 total square feet of exhibition space, of reception space and of meeting room space.