The restored Tiffany dome, the world’s largest, in Chicago’s Cultural Center.

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They did not journey to the People’s Republic of China or that other Asian republic known for its synchronized spectacles (a.k.a. North Korea). The Getaway Guys paid a visit to the People’s Palace on Michigan Avenue between Washington and Randolph Streets in Chicago. For 80 years (1897-1977) this imposing structure, with its elegant interiors, was Chicago’s Public Library.

But since 1977 the palace has been the Chicago Cultural Center, a mecca catering to the cultural needs of Chicagoans and visitors alike. 

Built between 1893-1895 (there is some confusion about dates), before there were other people’s republics and palaces, this massive structure is of finely cut Bedford bluestone (some sources say limestone) on a granite base supported by massive timber pilings. The interior of the building gleams with Italian marble, Tiffany stained glass and marble and glass mosaics. Designed by the Boston firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge (who also did the Art Institute of Chicago) and costing an estimated $2 million (a big bang for the buck when completed just before the 20th century), it was — without windy Chicago exaggeration – proudly hailed as the People’s Palace.

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 worked on its restoration while associated with Holabird and Root in the mid-‘70s), Alan had not frequented the Cultural Center. To his delight and surprise, he found it to be a jumping matrix of activity. 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-plus decades. 

Neil cajoled his skeptical Getaway partner into an in-depth visit in September. 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 country.

Until its dissolution in 1956, The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Memorial Hall was headquartered in Chicago’s Public Library, which may in part explain the building’s interior opulence and the willingness of Chicago politicians to spend lavishly on decor. 

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 the G.A.R. organizational archives were given to the Smithsonian long before the establishment of the Chicago Cultural Center, a collection of Civil War artifacts remained onsite until the Harold Washington Library was opened 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 notwithstanding, 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 the Visual Arts Program, led by Greg Knight and his small but dedicated team of accomplished professionals, has staged diverse exhibitions, among them an exhibition of the work of 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). 

From January 23 to March 28 the CC will feature a provocative exhibition of works by the late Chicago artist Hollis Sigler (1984-2001). The Getaway Guys saw this stunning exhibition at the Rockford Art Museum in early November.

The People’s Palace/Public Library/Cultural Center is a must-see Chicago landmark. In addition to its activities, generously funded by the city of Chicago, and wise and insightful direction by founding director Lois Weisberg, this edifice is a visual experience unto itself. With 800,000-plus visitors per year, it is also in the top tier of Chicago’s most-visited cultural institutions. A month-by-month calendar, packed with activities, can be viewed at www.cityofchicago.org/culturalaffairs/. Admission is free. Parking in the Monroe parking garage is not.

(The authors owe special thanks to Lanny Silverman, Curator of Exhibitions, for providing a list of highlight exhibitions organized by the Cultural Center over the years.)

Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked but are of genuine interest and delight.