Chicago’s Cultural Center

From the WSJ

The Chicago Cultural Center Is a Beaux Arts ‘People’s Palace’

The 1897 structure is one of the true gems in a city famous for its architecture.

Ionic columns and piers, gracefully rounded two-story windows, elegant proportions and decorative motifs contribute to its enduring appeal.


Occupying an entire city block on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, across from Millennium Park, is the extraordinary Chicago Cultural Center. For more than a century, this majestic, five-story Beaux Arts building has functioned as a dignified headquarters for learning and art.

Opened in 1897 as the first permanent home for the city’s public library, since 1977 it has served as a center for the arts. Over the years, it has become known as the “People’s Palace,” a nickname that denotes its inclusion of popular as well as fine arts among its activities.

This opulent Neoclassical edifice remains among the true gems in a city long famous for its architecture. On the inside, the building boasts glass domes and a profusion of marble and other lavish decoration. Taken as a whole, then, the cultural center is not so much a building as a kind of architectural gesamkunstwerk.

Designed in a classical revival style by the Boston firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, the building is a grand structure of the Gilded Age. Its exterior recalls an amalgam of Renaissance and neo-Greek architecture—Ionic columns and piers, gracefully rounded two-story windows, and elegant overall proportions and decorative motifs that have allowed the building to retain its aesthetic appeal through changing architectural periods.

The original main entrance to the library is on Washington Street, on the building’s south side. Here imported white Carrara marble dominates, selected for its durable matte finish as a suitable relief from the sparkling mosaic designs of favrile glass, gold leaf, mother-of-pearl and precious stones inlaid to outline windows and archways and to run in patterns along the floors. Its centerpiece is a crisscrossing grand staircase—also inlaid with glinting elements—in the style of the great palaces of the Italian Renaissance.

The building stands on land once known as Dearborn Park, part of which had previously been granted to the Soldiers’ Home to build a meeting hall in memory of Union Civil War veterans. In a compromise, the library board agreed to include a Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, remnants of which remain on the second floor in the eponymous hall.

This and the other rooms making up the memorial suite are at the north end of the building. Today one can still see the names of significant battles inscribed in gold leaf over doorways in the room that once served as a Civil War museum. Another room, where veterans gathered to meet, has become the Claudia Cassidy Theater, named for Chicago’s powerful performing-arts critic.

The main reception area of the memorial, or Rotunda, is largely dominated by a colossal dome, designed by the glassmaking firm of Healy & Millet. Forty feet in diameter, with 50,000 pieces of stained glass in somber tones, it instills a reflective mood in visitors.

Here, it is domestic marbles that are used for decoration. Richly colored and with dramatic veining, they were quarried in Vermont and Tennessee. The lavish use of marble throughout the building conjures a vision of heavy slabs rolling up to the building site from the nearby transit point on the shores of Lake Michigan, reminiscent of ancient images of the building of the Great Pyramids of Giza.

Atop the three-story staircase is what is surely the most exquisite yet serene public room in Chicago: Preston Bradley Hall, named after a once-prominent Chicago minister and theologian. The hall was once the library’s General Delivery Room, where patrons waited to receive books. Today it serves as a setting for dance and music performances—such as the weekly Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts featuring emerging talents performing classical music—as well as readings and lectures.

The walls here are decorated with dazzling mosaics, inlaid at angles to catch the room’s plentiful natural light. It was all done by a team of women hired, according to legend, because their smaller hands made them better suited for such delicate work.

But the focal point is another massive glass dome, this one designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Thirty-eight feet in diameter and composed of 30,000 pieces of translucent art glass, it is designed in a circular pattern to resemble fish scales. Tourists tend to walk underneath in circles, necks craned, peering at signs of the zodiac illustrated in its central oculus. And in a reminder of the cultural center’s previous incarnation, one finds throughout the room decorative symbols that relate to printing and books as well as book-related quotations, some in ancient languages.

The Chicago Cultural Center is timeless in its beauty and its purpose. Sitting in Preston Bradley for a concert and contemplating the Frank Gehry-designed pavilion across Michigan Avenue in Millennium Park, one cannot help but think of the dance of progress, whose choreography, at least in the realm of architecture, so often turns out to be one step forward and two steps back.

—Mr. Vatter is a writer in Chicago.



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