What’s that saying about the hidden gem of a city? I’ve found Chicago’s, and when I say “gem” I mean “it looks like a beautiful jewelbox on the inside.” The Chicago Cultural Center is a neoclassical building running the length of a city block on Michigan Avenue. Even though it’s across the street from Millennium Park, I’d never heard of it before a few of my friends went on a tour and urged me to visit. What an odd and lovely building it is.
You start out at the Randolph Street entrance and the tour works its way up and across the building until you’re at the Washington Street entrance. We had a wonderful guide, a lifelong Chicagoan who used to come to the Reading Room back when the building was still the city library. She knew everything there was to know, and editorialized subtly enough that you could miss it if you were so inclined, or hear her little digs at Daley’s 1989 plan to turn the building into a mall and such.
Apparently, after the Great Fire of 1871, Queen Victoria helpfully sent over thousands of book to replenish the city’s library–except Chicago had never had a library to replenish. So a library board was formed, and after fighting over the land with the city and then with Civil War veterans who wanted that land for a museum, they finally agreed to share for awhile, and went over budget to finish building it in twice the allotted time. Chicago!
Even when it was finished, it was an unusual thing. You can only go from one part of the building to another on the first and fourth floors, one side of the building has a fifth floor and one doesn’t, and the second floor isn’t even the same height all the way across the building. You’d never know this from looking at the building’s facade, and I’m still not clear on why it ended up this way, but it’s quite an adventure walking around inside. A guide definitely came in handy.
The Randolph entrance is all delayed gratification: through hand-carved mahogany doors, under a recessed ceiling pained white and gold, through a lobby full of people escaping the heat under more recessed ceiling, and finally to the two-sided staircase. Everything is made of marble, one of many safeguards against fire. Marble walls, marble staircase, inlaid tile on the ceiling… I don’t think I would have noticed if our guide hadn’t pointed it out, but much of the building didn’t have any painted surface at all, because there was no plaster to paint over. Everything was just solid. And it looked great; I can see why emperors and rich folks are so fond of using it.
We looked at what was once the museum of the Grand Army of the Republic (those Civil War veterans from earlier). The view from that room is amazing, and they do $50 civil service weddings there every Saturday, in 15-minute increments. The walls under the dome of the GAR are decorated with brass bas-reliefs of piles of weapons. Just piles of them, haphazardly thrown together over archways. Very strange.
The other side of the building carries on the marble theme, but here it’s white marble from Italy, inlaid with brightly colored glass and gold leaf that glistens in the light, brightening up the whole area. There’s more inlaid tile here, too, in intricate patterns naming famous authors and spelling out quotes about literature in various languages. If you were to enter the building from this side, you’d be immediately struck with the size and beauty of the staircase leading up to the hall with the Tiffany dome. But I’m glad we came in from the side; we made a progression from impressive site to impressive site (we had to skip a couple rooms because they’re switching out the exhibitions, but those are meant to be lovely too), and then we walked down a rather dull and small corridor, rounded the corner, and voila! Stunning.
Preston Bradley Hall contains the largest Tiffany dome in the world, and the largest display of intricate inlaid tile in the country, outside of a church in St. Louis.
I found the Cultural Center to be a lovely surprise, and a place I wish I’d visited years ago. Get going!
Where it is: The official address is 78 E. Washington St., but if you go for the tour, you’ll enter on Randolph.
When to go: The free tours are Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 1:15 pm. They last about an hour and a half, and that time flies by.
What to see: The tour points out all the architectural features, but of course this is an active cultural center, so you can come here for concerts, art exhibitions, and lectures. You can visit the art studio and gallery for mentally and physically disabled artists on the first floor, and buy some of their artwork. You can use one of the lobby areas to relax, eat a lunch, use the wireless. You can duck into the Visitor Center and get some official info on touring Chicago. You can convince some rich friends to hold their reception in Preston Bradley Hall so you can dance under that Tiffany dome.
Cost: For the most part, free!
Image 1. All other images mine.