Tim Samuelson, the city’s first and only cultural historian, retires

“His ability to really engage with people, he brings history to life. He’s done so much good for the city,” said one fellow historian.

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Chicago’s cultural historian Tim Samuelson retired this week

Sun-Times Media file photo

Tim Samuelson, the city’s first and only cultural historian, quietly retired this week, leaving a deep and enduring contribution to the city’s cultural landscape.

Samuelson, 69, worked for the city since 2002. Lois Weisberg, the former commissioner of cultural affairs, got him to leave the Chicago History Museum with the promise that he would be allowed to do “whatever you do” as the city’s cultural historian.

For almost two decades, Samuelson did exactly that, assisting fellow historians, reporters, businesses, architects and foreign delegations as a combination spokesman, consultant, historian and storyteller.

He often showed them exhibits, many of which he acquired on his own, and enthralled them with his enthusiastic storytelling, often while taking visitors outside on his own walking tours.

Back inside his one-man office on the fifth floor office in the Cultural Center, visitors often felt like they were inside a mini Chicago history museum, with artifacts like a pair of handcuffs that belonged to famous G-man Eliot Ness, ancient floor arrows decommissioned from the Marquette Building, a full-size player piano with original song scrolls, a microphone used on the WLS-AM’s “National Barn Dance” show, and the doorknob of Al Capone’s office in his Lexington Hotel Headquarters.

Samuelson has been credited with helping save many buildings that would have been lost otherwise, including the old Chess Records headquarters and several spots in Bronzeville vital to Jazz and Black history.

Along the way, Samuelson was repeatedly recognized for his work, most notably in 2015 when nonprofit preservation group Landmarks Illinois designated Samuelson himself a “Legendary Landmark.”

“We bestow that honor on just a few people every year who have made an incredible civic achievement or have contributed to our city, our civic environment and cultural community and we were so proud to do that in 2015 for Tim. It was long overdue,” said Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois.

Samuelson declined to be interviewed and would confirm only that Monday was his last day. But others who love Chicago history were happy to talk about the man they described as vital to Chicago.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was effusive late Tuesday in her praise of Samuelson in a statement: “Over his nearly two decades as Chicago’s official cultural historian, Tim Samuelson has been a walking encyclopedia of Chicago history and an invaluable resource to both our residents and visitors alike — not to mention three mayors. As a history lover myself, I have personally relished the moments I’ve had with Tim asking him questions and swapping stories on the many events, eras and colorful personalities that’ve marked our city’s past.

“The term ‘irreplaceable’ is used a lot, but it really applies to people like Tim. Whether it’s serving mayors like myself, or by offering his expertise to fellow historians, businesses, journalists, politicians, museums and more, there’s simply no one else who offers what Tim does.”

Chicago historian Ellen Skerrett, who is writing a history of St. Ignatius College Prep, said Samuelson’s emphasis on buildings that are important to people rather than on just their architecture resonates with her.

“He understands that churches and synagogues have been places of great beauty and really landmarks for people in their neighborhoods, built with the nickels and dimes of poor people. And that’s not something that gets enough credit,” Skerrett said.

“His ability to really engage with people, he brings history to life. He’s done so much good for the city,” Skerrett said.

Chicago historian Dominic Pacyga said Samuelson’s departure will leave the city with large shoes to fill.

“He was always very kind and in that way, presented a real face for that part of the city’s government. I hope that he’ll remain a resource for those of us who write about the city and for the city in general,” Pacyga said.

Pacyga may be getting his wish. While Samuelson has retired from his cultural historian post, he won’t be severing all ties, according to those who work with him. He is expected to be named to an emeritus position, staying on to help consult on the restoration of GAR Hall and Rotunda, which is being facilitated by a recent $15 million donation, according to a Department of Cultural Affairs employee who didn’t want to be named because the plan has not been formally announced.

GAR Hall is located inside the Cultural Center and named for the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for Union soldiers during the Civil War.

The center is also working on a permanent exhibit called “Inside Tim Samuelson’s Brain” that will preserve Samuelson’s massive collection of Chicago’s architecture artifacts and pictorial history. The plan is to digitize his collection, put everything online and have a permanent home inside the cultural center.

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