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You are now beneath a building that originally served dual purposes: as the first Chicago Public Library and as a memorial hall for the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), Civil War veterans who fought for the Union. This massive Neoclassical building was designed by the Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, and completed in 1897. By the 1970’s, the public library had outgrown the space and the whole building was converted into the Chicago Cultural Center. In addition to grand rooms where the Mayor of Chicago welcomes dignitaries, there are a number of gallery spaces, and hundreds of programs and exhibitions each year. Every other year, this site hosts the Chicago Architecture Biennial.
If you take the elevator in the center of the room on the Pedway level, you will emerge on the north side of the building by the Randolph Street entrance. This is the entry to the original GAR memorial and you will be in the space that served as the newspaper reading room. Glass block panels in the ceiling were intended to bring in light from the dome above. Note the intricate coffered ceiling and green-veined Vermont marble walls. Walking up the pink marble staircase, you will reach the GAR Rotunda featuring a 40-foot diameter stained-glass dome by the firm of Healy and Millet and ornamental heraldry embossed into the ceiling. Just beyond is the Memorial Hall, where the names of 30 Civil War battles are inscribed into the marble walls.
From here, you can cross over to south side of the building (original library) and see the spectacular Preston Bradley Hall. Gaze at the largest Tiffany dome in the world, patterned with fish scales and zodiac signs and restored to its original splendor in 2008. The dome is currently valued at $35 million dollars. Find inspiration in the many profound quotes about books and learning, rendered in the extensive Cosmati mosaics featured throughout the hall and down the stairways into the lobby on the Washington Street side.
To continue on a Pedway tour, return to the basement level of the Cultural Center and go through the glass doors to your left as you exit the elevator. Take a left turn (towards Millennium Station) and then a right turn which will guide you into the station.
Cover photo credit: chicagos_co_op_lender via Instagram.