Originally written for suite101.com and published on 12/02/09, now hosted at Xomba.

Although the Cultural Center is mainly known to tourists as one of the two main Visitor Information Centres in downtown Chicago, there is far more going on beneath the surface. Originally having been built to house Chicago’s first public library in 1897, in 1991 the building became the home of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. Housing a variety of arts programmes, workshops and free exhibits throughout the year.

Dual Purpose Architecture

Although the building served as the first permanent structure of Chicago’s public library system, there was a dual purpose to the structure from the outset. The building truly is one of two halves, depending on whether you enter the building from Washington or Randolph.

Entering from the Randolph side, where the Visitor Information centre is located, you pass through a reading room and by a gift shop guarded by an impressive bronze gateway; before ascending an impressive marble staircase to the Grand Army of the Republic Hall. Alternatively entering from Washington the visitor is greeted by a marble and mosaic atrium with a Venetian style staircase leading up to the beautifully decorated Preston Bradley Hall.

Preston Bradley Hall

Preston Bradley Hall

Grand Army of the Republic Memorial

The G.A.R. were a powerful and prominent organisation dedicated to supporting American Civil War union veterans. The stately and sombre nature of the interiors in their half of the building reflect its role as a place for memorial, while providing sufficient space to allow a full regiment to form a guard of honour. A frieze of gold leaf upon the green marble walls makes solemn reference to some thirty Civil War battles.

The dome in this half of the building was designed by Healy and Millet, with a Renaissance pattern of leaded glass in warm earth tones. The rotunda itself is decorated in a military theme reflecting the original role of these rooms in protecting important collections of Civil War mementos and regalia.

GAR Dome

Preston Bradley Hall

Taking its name from Dr Reverend Preston Bradley (1848-1933) clergyman and member of the Chicago Public Library board, the hall opened to the public in October 1897. Originally this was where the library’s books were delivered to patrons, and the friezes throughout reflect this in the literary quote in a variety of languages, both modern and ancient.

The dome is one of the largest created by the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company and features the signs of the Zodiac. The mosaics throughout the hall and staircase leading up to it were created using Tiffany’s patented favrile technique. Combining the favrile glass with mother of pearl and semi-precious stones to create over 10,000 square feet of shimmering mosaics that reflect and refract the ambient light from both the windows and the electric lights.

PBH Tiffany Dome

Temporary Exhibits

Linking the two halves of the building are corridors housing a variety of ongoing exhibits on Chicago public art and architecture. In mediums ranging from murals and sculpture to black and white photography. Exhibit halls, which house a variety of contemporary and classical art shows throughout the year, take up the fourth floor of the building almost entirely. The Sidney R. Yates Gallery being the grandest of these.

The gallery originally served as the library’s reading room and is thought to have been designed by architect Robert Spencer (1864-1953) in the Italian style that was in vogue at the end of the 19th century. The bold, intense red of the walls, thought to be a reference to the Pompeii excavations, are every bit as surprising as they were when they first shocked and excited the original Victorian patrons.

Opening Hours and Getting There

Address: 78 E. Washington Street, Chicago 60602 (Wheelchair accessible at 77 E. Randolph)

Located in the downtown Chicago area (within the Loop), CTA buses, rapid transit and Metra trains all stop nearby and there are several nearby parking lots for drivers.

Admission to the Cultural Center is free of charge and the building is open everyday except holidays.

Monday – Thursday: 8 am – 7pm

Friday: 8 am – 6 pm;

Saturday: 9 am – 6 pm;

Sunday: 10 am – 6 pm

For further information and reception contact: Tel – 312-744-6630