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The Chicago Cultural Center

2010 April 28
by Caroline Nye Stevens

CNS 2010

78 E. Washington St.

When people come to Chicago they’re sure to visit the Sears, oh excuse me – Willis Tower. They wander through Millennium Park and look at their reflection in Anish Kapoor’s “Cloudgate” sculpture. They walk up the Magnificent Mile and admire skyscrapers that compete for attention along the Chicago River. Only the smartest and luckiest of Chicago’s tourists venture into the Chicago Cultural Center – what should be the city’s number one attraction.

The building wasn’t always the Chicago Cultural Center. Shortly after the Great Chicago Fire in October 1871, several thousand books were sent to Chicago from England (including many from Queen Victoria’s personal collection) to replace our public library that had presumably been consumed by flames. Little did they know, Chicago never had a public library. Suddenly that changed. The Chicago Public Library was established in April of 1872. As the collection grew, a suitable permanent building for the library was needed. Designed by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, the Chicago Public Library’s building – today home to the Chicago Cultural Center – was completed in 1897.

Upon request of the library board, Charles Coolidge designed a classical Beaux Arts style building. Popularized through the World’s Columbian Exposition, it’s a style that gets its inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman architecture with an added element of grandeur. And grand it is. Framing the front entrance is a white Carrara marble staircase with mosaic embellishments. The mosaics adorning the stairs and walls were designed by Robert Spencer, but executed by J.A. Holzer, formerly of the Tiffany Studios. The staircase leads up to the building’s main attraction: Preston Bradley Hall.

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Originally the library’s reading room, Preston Bradley Hall is home to the largest Tiffany glass dome in the world. Spanning a diameter of 38ft and containing some 2,848 pieces of hand blown glass, the dome is a fitting ceiling for such a luxuriously decorated room. The fish-scale shaped glass of the dome is darker at the base and gets gradually lighter towards the oculus, which is embellished by the twelve signs of the zodiac. Louis Comfort Tiffany not only designed the dome and the mosaic work throughout the hall, but also all of the ornate hanging light fixtures.

As the Public Library’s collection increased, the 1897 building was abandoned in favor of a new larger structure — the Harold Washington Library. Starting in the 1970’s the Chicago Cultural Center slowly grew to take over the building. With free concerts, art exhibitions, dance and theater performances, the Cultural Center is a major asset to the city of Chicago. But the greatest asset of all is the building itself.

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The Chicago Cultural Center is an awe inspiring place with every corner on every floor waiting to be explored. The Tiffany dome might be the blockbuster experience, but the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall has a noteworthy dome of its own worth checking out. And don’t forget about all of those free and awesome cultural offerings all found on the Chicago Cultural Center’s website. For more photos of the Cultural Center check out BLUEPRINT: Chicago’s facebook page.

And if you’re interested in learning more about the Cultural Center’s masterpiece – its Tiffany Dome – watch this fascinating two part video all about its creation (part 1) and restoration (part 2).

4 Responses
  1. Gretchen permalink
    April 28, 2010

    My goal for this summer is to make it to at least one of the free lunchtime concerts here!

    • David Jordan permalink
      April 28, 2010

      I saw Dave Douglas there for free, he’s from New York and marveled that A) they had terrific free music performances in Chicago, and B) that he got to play in a room that cool.

      I think one of the Barbershop movies filmed a scene in Preston Bradley Hall.

  2. Cindy permalink
    April 30, 2010

    IMO it’s worthy of #1 attraction status on beauty alone; the variety of events is icing on the cake. When I’m hosting out of town visitors, it’s the first stop on my tour!

  3. May 3, 2010

    I just stopped by this weekend to appreciate this space. The Chicago rooms really are impressive. Those massive doors and ornate ceilings are just stunning.

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