It’s scary to think that the Chicago Cultural Center was almost demolished so that a dull mid-century office tower could have a spot on Michigan Avenue.
What–or rather, who–saved it? The petite wife of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the most powerful man in the city and state. Her name was Eleanor Daley; everyone called her “Sis.” She stayed out of the limelight…but when she spoke, she commanded attention. In 1971, her husband was ready to sell the land that the first central Chicago Public Library sat on, she told him “NO.”
Sis gave a rare interview to the Chicago Tribune, where she politely expressed her opinion that the building remain. “I don’t think that would be nice. That’s a beautiful site where it is. I’m for restoring and keeping all these beautiful buildings in Chicago.” Bingo. A few days later, the blue-ribbon mayoral committee voted unanimously to save the library. Done and done.
The Neo-Classical building was started in 1893, the year of the famous World’s Columbian Exposition. Constructed of Bedford limestone, the massive structure takes up one block of Michigan Avenue. The property was donated by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which would share the building. The cost of the library/GAR structure was almost $2 million…$61 million in today’s money.
Completed in 1897, the Chicago Cultural Center has two entrances. The south entrance, on Randolph Street, was for the. library. The north side, on Washington Street, was for the GAR meeting hall and library. The GAR Memorial Hall features a 40-foot dome, made of 50,000 glass pieces, in an intricate Renaissance pattern, designed by Healy & Millet. The GAR moved to Springfield, Illinois, in 1956, following the death of the last member. Today, its Italian design is worth your attention. The Sidney R. Yates Gallery on the fourth floor is a replica of Venice’s 14th century Doges Palace, and the fifth floor stairway copies the Bridge of Sighs.
The architects and craftsmen who were commissioned by the city spared no expense on interior materials: rare imported Carrara marbles, polished brass, fine hardwoods, and mosaics of Favrile glass, mother-of-pearl and colored stone, to create an architectural showplace. The pièce de résistance was–and still is–the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome. Its 30,000 pieces of glass measure 38 feet in diameter and includes the signs of the zodiac at the top. Around the base is a lofty quote by British author Joseph Addison: “Books are a legacy that a great genius leaves to mankind, which are delivered down from generation to generation as presents to the posterity of those who are yet unborn.” Originally, the dome served as a skylight over the library’s circulation desk on the third floor. It was completely restored in 2008, and the room now serves as one of the venues for free concerts, and events, both public and private. The Chicago Cultural Center houses two concert halls, two theaters, a cabaret space, and a dance studio.
Although the central library outgrew its space by the 1930s, it didn’t get a new home until 1991, when the Harold Washington Public Library opened a few blocks away. At that time, the Chicago Cultural Center was established, the the nation’s first and most comprehensive free municipal cultural venue.
Today, the Chicago Cultural Center offers more than 1,000 FREE programs a year. A full calendar of concerts, film festivals, literary readings, exhibitions, and cultural events happen every week. “The Palace of the People” is meant for all of Chicago to enjoy.
The Chicago Cultural Center is located at 77 E. Randolph Street or 78 E. Washington Street, right off Michigan Avenue. There is a Chicago Visitor Information Center on the first floor of the Randolph Street entrance. Free Wi-Fi and seating throughout the building. Hours: Monday-Friday, 10 am–7 pm. Saturday and Sunday, 10 am–5 pm. Phone: 877-744-2400
Want to join a tour or attend a concert? Here are some options–all free!
- Concerts: Mondays, Wednesdays, and most Fridays at 12:15 pm, under the Tiffany Dome (Preston Bradley Hall)
- Chicago Cultural Center tours: Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 1:15 pm, departing from the Randolph Street lobby
- InstaGreeter tour of the Loop: Friday through Monday, year-round, 11:30 am and 1 pm, departing from the Randolph Street Lobby
- InstaGreeter tour of Millennial Park: In 2019, May 24-October 6, a one-hour walking tour, departing from the Randolph Street Lobby
Can’t get enough Chicago? Me, either!