January 7th, 2019

Speaking of portals.

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (which destroyed most of the city), England sent thousands of books across the pond to replace the ones they’d assumed the fire had burned. But Chicago hadn’t established a library yet, and donations kept pouring in; eventually, the Chicago Public Library was created. Designed in 1897 by firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge in the neoclassical / Italian Renaissance style, it is one of the most ornately beautiful libraries I have ever seen. But it is no longer a library. Now it is the Chicago Cultural Center, and it acts as a reception venue for political figures as well as a gallery for free art exhibitions. One still passes through the Romanesque portal off Washington Street to enter it though, as they would have one hundred and thirty years ago, in search of books.

What drew me to the Chicago Cultural Center last month was the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome, constructed by JA Holzer for the company of Louis Comfort Tiffany. It is thirty-eight feet in diameter, spans more than 1000 square feet and is comprised of 30,000 individual panes of Favrile glass carved in the shape of fish scales. When I walked into its spacious hall, two men sat playing a grand piano and a cello while visitors listened, read books, or pointed their cameras skyward at the breathtaking dome. The walls are made of Carrara marble and inlaid with thousands of more pieces of Favrile glass, stone, gold leaf and mother of pearl. Designed at the peak of the Symbolist art movement, the hall is suffused with representations of meaning, culminating in the dome’s oculus, ringed with the twelve signs of the zodiac. I stayed in the hall for a long time. Black elevator shafts remain in the corners, where books used to arrive from different sections of the library. This was the waiting room where people picked up the books they had requested.

On the next floor, I took in an impressive art exhibit titled Tuned Mass. The mammoth suspended sculpture you see below is by Susan Giles, and it embodied something wordless that I could not and cannot quite articulate about the sublime beauty of the building and the history of it. How people had sat in that room and waited for their books. “In the Center There Were Librarians” hangs from the ceiling and is made of laser-cut honeycomb cardboard and gallons of glue. The shape and form of the piece come from Giles’s digital captures and 3-D scanning of the gestures people made as they spoke to her about the architecture and design of this historic place.

Her sculpture is the movement someone made with their hand as they spoke the words, “A large reference corral, literally like a counter, went around the center, and in the center, there were librarians.” Whoever said this was speaking of a different room in the same building, not the room with the dome (where the people had waited for their books) but the room with the counter and the librarians. Maybe it was the room that housed this very sculpture, I do not know. Regardless, I felt the movement of the gesture and the architecture in the sculpture when I stood in this room, and I feel it now when I look at these images. The physical movement of remembering history connects me to the place.