THE PEOPLE'S PALACE: Chicago Cultural Center
It’s not in the People’s Republic of China or that other republic known for its amazing synchronized spectacles (a.k.a. North Korea). The People’s Palace the Getaway Guys are referring to is in Chicago between Washington and Randolph Streets. For 80 years (1897-1977) this imposing structure with its elegant interiors was Chicago’s Public Library (calling this or that the People’s anything in capitalist America probably went out of fashion with the rise of communism after the Russian Revolution, 1917, except in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where People's Beer survived until 1972. Although an occasional soul trapped in another dimension may still wander in and wonder where the books are, Chicago’s once-upon-a-time People’s Palace has been the Chicago Cultural Center, a mecca catering to the cultural needs of Chicagoans and visitors alike for the past 32 years (1977-2009). Built between 1893-1895 (there seems to be some confusion about dates) before there were People’s Republics and Palaces, this remarkably massive structure of finely cut Bedford bluestone (some sources say limestone) on a granite base (supported by massive timber pilings) has Italian marble interiors and stained glass by Tiffany. Designed by the Boston firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge and costing an estimated $2 million (a big bang for the buck) when completed just before the 20th century, it was proudly hailed as the People’s Palace without windy city exaggeration.
Although an ardent admirer of the Dame Myra Hess Concert series (every Wednesday at noon in Preston Bradley Hall) and of Carol Ross Barney (his wife, who assisted with its restoration while associated with Holabird and Root in the mid-70’s), Alan hadn’t been a frequent denizen of the Cultural Center (shame on him!). To his delight and surprise, he found the CC to be a jumping matrix of activity to his liking. Neil, on the other hand, as a former provider of art services had been in and out of the CC at least 100 times over the last two decades. Skeptical (an Alan specialty) of the CC’s noteworthiness, Neil cajoled his Getaway partner into an in-depth visit in early September of this year. Graciously accompanied by Greg Knight, Deputy Commissioner and Curator of Exhibitions, and Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s Cultural Historian, the Getaway Guys spent an informative afternoon exploring this remarkable building and learning about its transformation from a public library to a cultural hub unlike any other in the U.S.
Until its dissolution in 1956, The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was headquartered in Chicago’s Public Library, which may (in part) explain its interior opulence and the willingness of Chicago politicians to spend lavishly on décor. Established in 1866, the G.A.R. successfully promoted the interests of Union veterans and, at the height of its influence, wielded considerable political clout. Although its organizational archives were given to the Smithsonian long before the establishment of the Chicago Cultural Center, a collection of Civil War artifacts remained on-site until house in the Harold Washington Library beginning in 1991. Neil remembers its Gatling gun, having supervised its removal. Dr. Gatling’s guns are very heavy.
Its importance as a cultural hub and conduit (the Department of Cultural Affairs and a very busy Visitors Center) and its sumptuous late 19th century interiors not withstanding, the Cultural Center’s very active visual arts program makes it one of Chicago’s most important venues for cutting edge works by prominent and emerging artists both nationally and internationally. For more than three decades (led by Greg Knight and his small, but dedicated team of accomplished professionals), the Visual Arts Program has staged exhibitions of very diverse interest, including an exhibition of the work by the Polish-born sculptor, Magdalena Abakanowitz (1982), a Martin Puryear exhibition entitled Public and Personal (1987), Outsider Art: An Exploration of Chicago Collections (1997), Leon Goleb: Works Since 1947 (2003), Karl Wirsum: Winsome Works (2007), and The Big World: Recent Art from China (2009), to name only a few. From January 23, to March 28, 2010 the Cultural Center will feature a provocative exhibition of works by the late Chicago artist Hollis Sigler (1948-2001). The Getaway Guys saw this stunning and excellent exhibition at the Rockford Art Museum in early November 2009.
The People’s Palace/Public Library/Cultural Center is a must see and experience landmark destination. In addition to its generously funded activities by the City of Chicago and its wise and insightful direction by its founding Director Lois Weisberg, this edifice by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge (who also designed the Art Institute of Chicago) is a visual experience unto itself. With 800,000+ visitors per year it is also in the top tier of most visited cultural institutions in Chicago. Every month is packed with a staggering number of activities which are listed at www.cityofchicago.org/culturalaffairs/. Admission is free. Parking in the Monroe parking garage is not!
Special thanks to Lanny Silverman, Curator of Exhibitions, for providing a list of highlight exhibitions organized by the Cultural Center over the years. December 2009
(Photos courtesy Chicago Cultural Center. CPL logo picture by Michael Beasley.)