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

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A dual-purpose building

The Library Board envisioned a splendid building that would enrich Chicago’s cultural and intellectual life. However, before plans could be prepared, a conflict arose over control of Dearborn Park because the state legislature had given the north quarter of the park to an American Civil War veterans organization called the Soldier’s Home. An agreement was finally signed in 1891 that specified two distinct purposes for the building; that it be the Chicago Public Library as well as a Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall dedicated to Northern soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

In order to finance the structure, an unusual method of funding was implemented. Instead of seeking philanthropic support from a privileged group, as was often done for such projects, the City Council levied a 1% tax on its citizens. That way it could be said that the library truly belonged to the people of Chicago.


The architects’ vision

Once financing was established, the Library Board requested bids from architectural firms throughout the nation. The Instructions to Architects specified that the new library “convey to the beholder the idea that the building would be an enduring monument worthy of a great and public spirited city.”

In February 1892, the Boston firm of Shepley Rutan and Coolidge (known today as Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott) was awarded the contract to design the library. These three young architects were the successors to the office of Henry Hobson Richardson, one of America’s foremost nineteenth-century architectural firms. Talented and popular, they had just completed the original building of The Art Institute of Chicago.

The architects’ final concept for the library was a neo-classical building that included powerful Greek columns and sturdy Roman arches. Adhering to the Board’s rigid and detailed specifications for the structure, Shepley Rutan and Coolidge’s design showed a unified exterior with an interior that served the purposes of a library and war memorial.


1892 groundbreaking

With great fanfare and excitement, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the corner of Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue on July 27, 1892. Dr. Emil G. Hirsch, a prominent rabbi and Library Board president, proclaimed, “We have for years been like the ancient people of Egypt, wandering about in search of a home. At last we have reached the promised land and here we intend to remain. As the sun’s heat is oppressive, I will not detain you further. I now take the first shovel of earth and cast it into the wagon.” He then emptied his shovel into a nearby wagon. Others followed suit. The dirt from the excavation site was hauled to the Art Institute site where it was used for landfill.


October 1897: Unveiling the people’s palace

Five years later, after several construction delays, the spectacular, neo-classical granite and limestone “palace” called the Chicago Public Library was finally completed. During the first week of October 1897, the people of Chicago marveled at the sparkling building that housed an inspired, marvelous library and a serenely beautiful Grand Army of the Republic War Memorial.

The Chicago Sunday Tribune said: “While its decorative splendor is surpassed by other notable libraries, particularly the new structures in Washington and Boston, its tastefulness and fitness leave little to be desired.” Ten thousand Chicagoans a day flocked to see the elegant structure with its two dazzling stained-glass domes; white marble stairways and walls decorated with shimmering mother-of-pearl and colored glass mosaics; green marble war memorial rooms containing the names of important battles; and beautiful coffered ceilings.

One week later, on October 9, a gala celebration was held for nearly 3,000 guests, a “who’s who” of Chicago society. At the opening, the Chicago Orchestra played the intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavallieria Rusticana, composed just six years before. The music accompanying the dedication foreshadowed what would be the mission of the Chicago Cultural Center nearly a century later – to support new and innovative arts.

This building is as solid as its great mass suggests. It took nearly a year for 70 men to drive 2,357 wooden piles 75 feet to the hardpan clay below Michigan Avenue’s sandy soil. The design, by engineer William Sooy Smith, was so stable that there has been no noticeable settlement of the building in more than 100 years.

Railroad cars supplied the coal that fed the massive boilers in the basement. Today heat and hot water are supplied by the Pittsfield Building across the street.

Newspaper stands on the Randolph Street side of the library allowed Chicagoans to read the latest editions of the daily papers before home services were widespread.



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