The People’s Palace: The Story of the Chicago Cultural Center

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The Chicago Cultural Center Welcomes You...

Today, when you walk into the Chicago Cultural Center, you enter a world of culture that is uniquely Chicago. It is the magical tour, whether you go through the gleaming Carrara marble and Tiffany glass Washington Street side or the more boisterously crowded, yet tranquil Randolph Street side. Somewhere in the marvelous building, at any hour of the day and into the night, people of all definitions, from near and far, are enjoying the multitude of exciting free events sponsored by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.

This is a People’s Palace – a celebration of the arts, education, Chicago, and the world. Constructed over 100 years ago as the Chicago Public Library and a Civil War memorial, the Chicago Cultural Center reflects the best of Chicago.


Chicago…in the beginning

History books are filed with stories about Chicago – DuSable’s Trading Post. Battles at Fort Dearborn. The Great Fire of Chicago. The World’s Columbian Exposition. These and many other historic events set the stage for Chicago today, one of the most beautiful and dynamic cities in the world…and Chicago tomorrow.

Chicago was incorporated in 1837. Thirty-three years later, in October 1871, fire raged through the city’s core, burning four square miles, killing 250 people, leaving 100,000 people homeless, and destroying 18,000 buildings. Chicago was fire-swept and almost totally destroyed.

In the spirit of dedication and determination so representative of its citizens, the city was soon rebuilt. A year after the fire, new buildings appeared every day. By 1875, many busy streets were lined with tall marble buildings, some an unimaginable nine stories high, made possible by recently invented elevator. The sounds of construction were everywhere. Crossroad of the nation’s rail lines and center for meatpacking, as well as a major harbor for ships on the Great Lakes, Chicago grew and grew. Even in this rugged environment, citizens showed an appreciation for culture and learning.


A public library for Chicago

The first library in Chicago dates back to 1834 when the Chicago Lyceum maintained a circulating library of 300 volumes for its members. The Lyceum’s popularity faded and in 1841 some of its members formed a new cultural center, the Young Men’s Association. The Association had a public reading room with a collection of 30,000 books, all of which were destroyed in the fire of 1871.

Soon after the fire, Chicagoans received about 8,000 books from distinguished British authors and statesmen who wanted to help replace those that were destroyed. Many volumes were autographed by their donors, including Queen Victoria, John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, Robert Browning, John Ruskin and Alfred Lord Tennyson. With these books as the base of the collection, Chicago’s leaders established the Chicago Public Library in April 1872.

The Library Board arranged for the collection to be housed in an old water tank. For many years following, the library occupied various temporary spaces while Board members looked for a permanent site. By 1874, the collection was available for circulation without charge to all Chicagoans, and two years later it had 120,000 volumes! By 1891, Chicago boasted the largest library system in the country. William Frederick Poole, the city’s distinguished librarian and a nationally recognized scholar, is credited for much of the library’s success in that era.


1893: Chicago presents the World’s Columbian Exposition

Finally, the Library Board selected Dearborn Park as a permanent site and in 1893 the Chicago City Council granted the required approval. As planning for the library continued, Chicagoans were presenting their beautiful, vigorous and prosperous city to the more than 26 million people who came to the famous World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The main buildings were designed in a neo-classical style. The Museum of Science and Industry is the only structure remaining from the Fair. The success of the World’s Fair convinced many city leaders that Chicago could compete with any major American or European city. It also inspired visionaries like Daniel Burnham, who some years later presented the city with its brilliant 1909 Plan of Chicago.


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