Chicago Cultural Center historic restoration & reopening

Chicago Cultural Center historic restoration & reopening
Photo: Carole Kuhrt=Brewer

The restoration of the Chicago Cultural Center’s Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall and Rotunda brings back to life a lost treasure of architecture and decorative arts

A Chicago treasure, the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington), which has been closed since March 2020 will reopen on June 2, 2021.

The reopening not only marks the long-awaited return of visitors to this magnificent space but is the continuation of an exciting renovation that began in February 2021.

Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) yesterday announced the historic restoration of Chicago’s celebrated “People’s Palace.”

The Renovation

The extensive project will reclaim two lost interiors decorated by the celebrated Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company: the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R) Memorial Hall and Rotunda.

“With its sparkling mosaics and hovering art glass dome, the Chicago Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall has been a must-see attraction for decades. But it’s about to get some stiff competition when restoration of the G.A.R. rooms is completed next year,” said Tim Samuelson, Cultural Historian Emeritus for the City of Chicago.“This project reminds me of hunting for buried treasure. Instead of being buried under the ground, it’s a treasure of Tiffany coloration buried beneath layers of paint — and just waiting to be revealed in all its 1890s glory. This is no ordinary preservation project. It’s an undertaking beyond belief, assembling the absolute top talents in historic restoration to revive one of the great lost treasures of decorative arts.”

An intricate process will expose the original 1890s surfaces by methodically separating layers of paint. The project also includes the conservation of a 40-foot diameter, 62,000-piece, art glass dome that will return natural light that has been blocked since a renovation in the 1930s. Long-lost lighting fixtures that were custom designed for the rooms will be recreated using early photographs and original architectural drawings.

When completed next year, the rooms will reflect their historic appearance, but also more ably facilitate a wider range of free and diverse cultural programming. This includes upgraded lighting, electrical, Wi-Fi and more as well as opportunities for artists and organizations to activate the space through a variety of performances and exhibitions.

Opening Exhibitions

Staircase inside the Chicago Cultural Center. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

The Chicago Cultural Center presents hundreds of free annual events showcasing artists, musicians and performers from around the world.

The June 2 reopening will feature the exhibitions “Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford: League of Nations” and “what flies but never lands.” \

Following that, on June 18, another exhibition “Chicago: Where Comics Came to Life, 1880–1960” will open.

More exhibitions and events will be announced soon on the Chicago Cultural Center website.

What’s New

Guests will be greeted with new visitor amenities including a reimagined Welcome Center and Learning Lab — and Buddy, a new shop created with the Public Media Institute (online for now at hi-buddy.org) to give Chicago’s artists and small manufacturers a place to showcase and sell their goods and artwork.

A Little History

The Chicago Cultural Center was designed by the architecture firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge and completed in 1897. The building is designed in a classic Beaux Arts style with Greek and Roman architectural elements popularized by the World’s Columbian Exposition. Preston Bradley Hall, once the library’s reading room, is home to the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome ceiling.

The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Memorial Hall and G.A.R. Rotunda was dedicated in 1898. The rooms were created as a place of gathering for Union Civil War veterans and their families, and a place of memory honoring those who died.

Reliefs in decorative plaster reflect iconography of war through the ages, richly finished in silver leaf shaded with layers of translucent color. The overall design was a collaborative effort of architect Charles A. Coolidge, partner in the Boston-based firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, and the New York studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

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