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The Poetry Foundation

2011 November 22
by Caroline Nye Stevens


The Poetry Foundation, Intersection of Superior and Dearborn St. CNS 2011

61 W. Superior St.

John Ronan’s richly layered design for the Poetry Foundation visually reflects poetic verse. Thoughtfully, rooms connect through various levels of transparency, and planes of space float effortlessly together. Zinc window mullions form the building’s meter, which is repeated across its perforated shell. Like a poem, a walk through the building is a process of discovery.

The journey starts at the intersection of Superior and Dearborn streets. Instead of Ronan leading you directly to the building’s entrance, he takes you for a walk: first through a small garden that functions as a memorial to the Foundation’s benefactor, Ruth Lily, then past the building’s performance space, through a courtyard, until finally he deposits you at the entrance. A great wall of books greets you through transparent glass, confirming that you arrived at your destination.

Once inside, the journey continues. The same concrete floor from the outside is continued on the inside, as are the courtyard’s trees in the form of bamboo stalks in the stairwell. Lines are blurred between outside and inside, public and private. The interior is simple and transparent. John Ronan said, “The idea is that this spatial narrative unfolds as visitors move through and between these layers. We were trying to achieve a transcendent materiality where we take very humble materials and then ennoble them in a way – not unlike what a poet would do with words.”

Entrance to the Poetry Foundation, CNS 2011

This 22,000sf building contains a bi-level library for 30,000 non-circulating books, a gallery space, open-air offices, a 4,000sf courtyard, and a dedicated room for poetry readings. As minimal as it is, careful attention was paid to the design of the performance space in an effort to make the acoustics ideal for the spoken word – without the need for amplification. The combination of materials in the room was chosen to diffuse, reflect and absorb sounds depending on their placement – working as a buffer from outside sounds and enhancing the sounds from within.

The Poetry Foundation began as the Poetry Magazine, which was founded by Harriet Monroe in 1912 under the philosophy now written on the Foundation’s wall: “The Open Door will be the policy of this magazine – may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut against his ample genius!” One poet whose work never made it into the magazine, despite countless efforts, was Ruth Lily – a pharmaceutical heiress from Indiana who endowed the Poetry Foundation with a $200 million gift, making the building of its new home, and everything else the Foundation now does, possible. Despite her failure to print a poem in the magazine, Ms. Lily still felt welcomed by the Poetry Magazine to keep trying. The doors of the Poetry Foundation are likewise open to the great poet, aspiring poet, or simply lovers of poetic architecture.

Library of the Poetry Foundation, Chicago

Library, Poetry Foundation, CNS 2011


To read the Poetry Magazine and learn more about all of the offerings of the Poetry Foundation visit their website. To learn about John Ronan, one of Chicago’s greatest young architects, and to see other examples of his firm’s work click here.

And be sure to check out this photo album of images taken of the Poetry Foundation by Hedrich Blessing’s Steve Hall for Architectural Record.

One Response
  1. Cayla permalink
    November 23, 2011

    Beautiful essay on a spectacular place….I can’t wait to visit it!

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