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

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Entering the Twentieth Century

By 1915 cultural programming was a regular feature at the library. By the mid-1920s the library began to outgrow its space. As early as the 1930s the inadequate space at the library became a topic of public discussion. Between the 1930s and 1970s the scope of the library’s offerings continued to expand; it was clearly overcrowded.

Even as early as the 1920s, the Chicago Public Library had already established itself as a landmark in the hearts of Chicagoans.

A 1967 architectural survey conducted by Chicago architects Holabird and Root confirmed that although the building was still structurally sound, the mechanical, electrical and communication systems were obsolete. Some changes were necessary.


The library building is saved

A design competition for renovation of the Chicago Public Library was held in 1970. Two architectural firms from Madison, Wisconsin shared the prize for the winning design, estimating that the project would cost a prohibitive $28 million. Soon the library became the center of a spirited public debate. City officials were challenged to provide Chicagoans with a cost-effective, updated public library and some suggested that the building be demolished. Preservationists wanted to save it, both for its magnificent beauty and as a monument to the past.

During the early 1970s, the demolition of old buildings in the name of progress and modernization was a common response to the aging of American cities. Chicago was no exception and the Chicago Public Library building seemed doomed to share the fate of the recently demolished Board of Trade building.

A group of citizens and preservation activists, who came together to save the building as early as 1965, worked with the Chicago Heritage Committee and the Landmarks Preservation Council (now Landmarks Illinois) throughout the early 1970s. Charles G. Staples played a significant leadership role in the eight-year preservation campaign – and also wrote an extensive history of the Central Library Building, a copy of which is archived at the Chicago History Museum. [The City of Chicago honored Mr. Staples for his preservation efforts and his decades of volunteer service at a ceremony on May 3, 2017.]

On February 7, 1972, Mayor Richard J. Daley formed a special six-man committee to consider the building’s future. Four days later, in a rare public comment, Eleanor “Sis” Daley, the Mayor’s wife, was quoted in the Chicago press as saying, “I am for restoring and keeping all the beautiful buildings.” Within three weeks, the Mayor’s committee announced that the building would be saved.

Preservationists cheered. The Chicago Public Library would be moved to a new site. Not only would one of Chicago’s most beautiful buildings be saved, but this decision would help to save other historic treasures in the future. In another important move Senator Adlai Stevenson III (D. Illinois) succeeded in having the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places because it was “a precious public resource.” This designation, granted in 1972, would also protect it from future demolition.

The library is renovated: 1974-1977

Approximately half of the library’s books and periodicals had been moved to another location by 1974. Consequently, the library’s collection was then housed in two facilities. That same year, the firm of Holabird and Root was selected as the architects for a much-needed building renovation. The architects viewed the structure as an historic treasure and their sensitive design kept the exterior and most of its decorative features intact and unchanged.

When the project was completed three years later, Holabird and Root were lauded for their skillful work – modernizing an outdated structure while preserving its historic integrity.


What did the architects do?

During the renovation, old space was put to new use. Along Garland Court, on the west side of the structure, a long, gently sloping ramp was constructed to provide easy access between several floors and the building’s north and south sections. The ramp also enclosed the original U-shape of the building, allowing for a lovely sculpture garden. A major exhibition space was created out of former stack-filled library rooms and the G.A.R. meeting room gained new life as the Preston Bradley Hall, providing a dazzling setting for functions from concerts to luncheons. In 1976, The Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks granted the building status as a Chicago Landmark.


The rise of the Chicago Cultural Center

Imaginative support by the Chicago City Council and succeeding mayoral administrations during the 1970s and 1980s fostered the evolution of the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center. In 1976, during the administration of Mayor Michael Bilandic, the Chicago Council on Fine Arts was established to publicly support individual artists and arts organizations. In 1977, the building became known as The Chicago Public Library Cultural Center. Mayor Jane Byrne moved the funding for programs and staff from the library to the Chicago Council on Fine Arts in 1981. In 1984, Mayor Harold Washington’s administration created the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs to provide free arts and cultural services to all Chicagoans, and the programming role became part of the new department.

In 1986, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced a design competition for a new library that would be located on West Congress Boulevard. In 1989 Mayor Daley appointed Lois Weisberg as Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. In 1991, the new Harold Washington Library Center was dedicated. Soon after, Mayor Daley decided that the venerable building on Michigan Avenue should become a free museum and cultural center. Created by visionaries who believed that the arts should be free to the public and part of their daily experience, the Chicago Cultural Center evolved as a national model. Referring to its genesis, Commissioner Weisberg said, “It was a dream come true for those who love the arts and view them as an essential public service that should be free and accessible to everyone. There is no place like it in the country.” To this day, Commissioner Weisberg holds the same position.

Thanks to the efforts of Congressman Sidney R. Yates (D. Illinois), the Chicago Cultural Center received $2 million from the federal government for a partial renovation, completed in 1994. That same year, the Sidney R. Yates Gallery, a beautiful exhibition space, was dedicated. The momentum continued and the Chicago Cultural Center soon boasted a Studio Theater, Dance Studio, Café, Shop and three more galleries. Today, the Museum of Broadcast Communications is another popular attraction and Renaissance Court, operated by the Chicago Department on Aging, serves an important population.


The Chicago Cultural Center today

The Chicago Cultural Center attracts thousands of visitors each year – people of all ages and nationalities, residents and tourists – who experience the hundreds of regularly scheduled public events offered free of charge. It is known for exhibitions, music, drama and dance; for lectures, demonstrations and workshops; screenings and plays; and concerts and discussions. The Chicago Cultural Center is a special place, a People’s Palace, where everyone who enters its grand lobbies has a unique opportunity to be entertained, enlightened, and enriched.



taken from The People’s Palace: The Story of the Chicago Cultural Center
Copyright 1999 Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs
Introduction by M.W. Newman [Not included here]
Text by Nancy Seeger
Research compiled and edited by Rolf Achilles


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