Chicago’s Cultural Center

The Preston Bradley Hall

This building opened in 1897 as Chicago’s first central public library and was reestablished as a cultural center in 1991. It was designed in the Revivalist Style by architects Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. The interiors are modeled after the Doge’s Palace in Venice (been there), the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (seen that), and the Acropolis in Athens (which I have not yet seen).

The staircase leading to the dome sits in a vaulted 3-story space, 40 x 52 feet wide and is considered one of the grandest staircases in the country.  Ascending this staircase took my breath away when I reached the top and arrived in the Preston Bradley Hall, originally the reading room for the Chicago Public Library. It houses the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome, measuring 38 feet across. The symbols in the ring at the top are the signs of the zodiac, separated at cardinal points by floral panels, although I am informed that these cardinal points are not placed accurately (which would place them at the actual solstice and equinox points between the zodiac signs in accordance with the astrological calendar).

The light fixtures were also designed by Tiffany. The architects liked to mirror their designs and motifs, as you will see here in the fish scale pattern (a popular Roman-era motif) that makes up the body of both the dome and the chandeliers. The metalwork was done by the Chicago Ornamental Ironwork Company.

I laid on the floor to take photos through a zoom lens – a thing I have always regretted not doing in the Baptistry in Florence. The color variances are due to my shooting these photos at various times over three days when I was able to get into this dome between concerts and large groups of visitors.

It was interesting to note that the dome turned green on overcast days.

The mosaics surrounding the dome were also designed by Tiffany, based on Renaissance scrollwork. The inlay appears to include gold, mother of pearl and possibly other semi-precious stones. On sunny days the walls glittered.

The photo below shows the foyer just outside of the Preston Bradley Hall. I was so focused on the Tiffany dome that I missed major pieces of mosaic in this foyer, which were assembled in the Tiffany Studios in New York City before being transported here. They feature the names of classical artists and quotes in Chinese, Hebrew, Persian and Egyptian, selected by librarians during the building’s construction. 

The mosaics on the staircases were designed by Robert Spencer and Jacob A. Holzer, who were both employed by Tiffany Studios at the time. The mosaics were finished in 1898 in a Byzantine Revival style made popular by “Theodora” – a play starring Sarah Bernhardt. They were executed in mother of pearl, gold backed tesserae glass, and Favrile glass which Tiffany patented in 1894. The mosaics are set in Carrera marble, in a style of ornamentation known as Cosmati – an Italian style dating to the 11th century.

I think this is the staircase that leads to the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial (G.A.R. rotunda), and a patch of the mosaic floor on the landing.

The G.A.R. Rotunda was crafted by Healy & Millet and exquisite in its own right. It was built as a meeting place for the group and was furnished by A.H. Andrews Company. The Rococo style furniture disappeared prior to the reopening of the Cultural Center in 1977.

Of all the things I saw in Chicago, this was probably the most spectacular of them. If you only have an hour to spend in Chicago, spend it here.

“Architecture, sculpture and painting have fallen away from each other. They could be put back again if society would return to the time … when every object was beautiful because it was made by the hands of man.”

William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

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