When the building that first housed the central library and now the Chicago Cultural Center was completed in 1897 at cost of more than $60 million in today’s dollars, it was a symbol of the city’s surging national importance and a beacon of culture and knowledge.
The latest milestone in what has been a multistep renovation of the building — a comprehensive, more than $15 million restoration of the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall and Rotunda — is expected to be completed in February 2022 and help bring the structure back to its original splendor.
“It parallels the best of the best doing the building in the 1890s and the best of the best restoring it here in 2021,” said Tim Samuelson, cultural historian emeritus for the City of Chicago.
The one-year project, which has brought together top preservation experts and artisans from the Chicago area and beyond, has been funded by a grant from an anonymous donor — the largest private donation in the history of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
Although the Memorial Hall and rotunda are closed during this overhaul, the rest of the building is open to the public, including a reimagined Welcome Center and Learning Lab, and Buddy, a new shop that features art and other goods by area artists and small fabricators. In addition, several exhibitions can be seen, such as “Chicago: Where Comics Came to Life, 1880-1960.” The landmark building, affectionately called “The People’s Palace,” is home to myriad music, dance, art exhibits, lectures and other programs throughout the year.
The limestone-faced building at 78 E. Washington was designed by the Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, which won the commission through a competition. The 104-foot-tall structure with 3-foot-thick walls follows a neo-classical style with Italian Renaissance elements.
At the time of the central library’s conception, Chicago was preparing for a world’s fair and was concerned about its image. So, no expense was spared, with interior marble imported from the celebrated quarries of Carrera, Italy, and the engagement of the finest designers and artists of the day.
“Although the building was still under construction at the time of the fair,” Samuelson said, “seeing this great classical stone building rising up for a library certainly sent the message that Chicago wasn’t just some place of stockyards and smokestacks.”
Two key parts of the building in the north wing are the memorial hall and rotunda, an ode to a fraternal organization of Civil War veterans who donated the land. Highlighting the rotunda is a dome 40 feet in diameter with 62,000 pieces of stained glass.
The dome and interiors of the spaces were designed by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Co., a predecessor of the better-known Tiffany Studios, all of which were owned and directed by famed artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. The actual work was carried out under the supervision of Tiffany specialists by other firms, including Chicago-based Healy & Millet, which fabricated the dome.
But as inevitably happens over time, the building suffered normal degradation, and elements were modified. A protective glass skylight over the rotunda dome was covered during a 1930s renovation, blocking natural light, and the meticulously layered colors of the walls were painted over in the 1970s.
This new project is meant to counteract those changes, restore the original look of rooms and upgrade electrical and technical infrastructure. It is being overseen by Harboe Architects of Chicago, which was founded in 2006 by Gunny Harboe. The historic-preservation specialist has worked on the restoration of the Rookery Building, 209 S. LaSalle, and Unity Temple in Oak Park.
Instead of re-creating the original wall colors, as is typically done, workers with EverGreene Architectural Arts of Oak Park have been able to carefully scrape away the 1970s over-painting and preserve the 1890s surfaces with only minimal touch-up. Dorothy Krotzer of Philadelphia provided the historic materials analysis.
“It’s going to be spectacular,” said DCASE commissioner Mark Kelly. “This is every door, every piece of marble, the 62,000 pieces of glass. These rooms that had lost all of their color and luster are just going to be ablaze as a Tiffany masterpiece.”
Admission to the Chicago Cultural Center is free; it’s open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. In addition to the dome undergoing restoration, the building also boasts the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome at the south end of the center, which is open for public viewing.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.