The Chicago Cultural Center, like Ulysses and Julia Grant’s White Haven in the St. Louis area, is a landmark building. Unlike White Haven, Ruth & I had been in it in the past many times without realizing it’s worth. This time our hotel was 2 blocks away from it, so we decided to take another look. We now have an appreciation for it like the almost 2,000 TripAdvisor reviewers who have rated it either Excellent or Very Good. Over time, only 83 have found it average or less. Most of the very impressed reviewers were shocked to learn this sturdy building was almost torn down.
It began its existence as a neo-classical library on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street in 1892. By the 1970s many thought it should be demolished to make way for yet another tower like the 110-story Sears Tower, now Willis, that was completed in 1974. The mayor at that time, the well-known Richard J. Daley, couldn’t decide what to do so he did what politicians usually do. He formed a committee to study the issue and report back to him. His wife, however, knew what to do and saved it.
Today the Chicago Cultural Center attracts thousands of visitors, many of them on city tours, who gape at its Tiffany splendor and tell TripAdvisor how wonderful it is. Ruth & I didn’t take a formal tour but we did gape. Next time we hope to attend one of the free cultural events that occur in this magnificent building. Art exhibitions like the ones we saw, dance performances, workshops, and an endless variety of public events are held here every year.
Most of the visitors were in Preston Bradley Hall. Once the place where library patrons received their books, it now is where everyone looks up in complete amazement at a Tiffany dome and mosaics. The dome is said to be the largest undertaking in Tiffany and Company’s history. Its 2,848 faceted glass jewels were designed and placed to let in as much light as possible. Like the building, Ethel Spear’s playful rendering of a Lake Michigan beach scene, a WPA project, almost didn’t survive. It was tossed in a trash can in 1966 so that its frame could be used for a current student’s project. Luckily, an astute student retrieved it and its now on display in the Chicago Cultural Center among its always temporary exhibits. These tend to focus on the Chicago scene. One that we saw featured the slowly morphing, screen-sized face of actress Esther Rolle who visited Chicago when her successful TV show “Good Times” was a top-rated and culturally influential series. Its millions of fans watched her and her husband cope with their children and life in general in a Chicago housing project.
In my opinion, Chicago does the best job among American cities of honoring its heritage. If you are there and don’t have time for an architectural walking tour, at least stop in to see what’s going on at its 5 Compass Cultural Center that didn’t become this city’s Peoples’ Palace until 1991.
ps. A reader with a great memory who read my blog “U. S. Grant, Traveler”, wrote to remind me that Robert E. Lee’s horse was named Traveler.