Sunday, May 9, 2010

Chicago Cultural Center

I am an American, Chicago-born. While this isn't meant to imply I'm a big Saul Bellow fan, it does inspire a personal kind of pride-of-place when I visit the broad-shouldered city of my birth.

I've visited frequently in the past couple of years for work-related meetings, and have managed to arrive early or leave late several times in order to see family who still live in the north suburbs and to enjoy what downtown offers. Last weekend, following an all-day meeting on Friday, I spent Saturday wandering up and down the Magnificent Mile, taking a riverboat architectural tour of the city, and visiting the Art Institute to see its new Modern Wing and a ravishing Matisse exhibition. Before the meeting, I'd managed to fit in Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's production of The Taming of the Shrew and a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance of work by Martinu, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky.

It turns out that almost forty years after leaving the city, I love Chicago ... which isn't meant to imply that I'm eager to return to the full annual rotation of midwestern weather.

In the course of this and earlier visits I passed the bronze bull standing at the corner of the Chicago Cultural Center, on E. Washington at Michigan Ave., quite a few times before I wandered in on an impulse the other day. The building that houses the Center was built as the first permanent structure of the Chicago Public Library system in 1897, and has recently been restored. My photos of Preston Bradley Hall aren't nearly as good as the one on Wikipedia, so here's a shout-out to Daderot and the Wikimedia Commons for the copy re-posted here.

I love grand public libraries. I rarely visit Manhattan without stopping by the Rose Main Reading Room at the 42nd St & 5th Ave branch of the NYPL. My favorite place to edit fiction on the Berkeley campus, where I'm paid to edit software and grant proposals, is the North Reading Room of Doe Library.

The Chicago Public's original edifice was built in the same, magnanimous turn-of-the-century spirit that engendered its younger sisters in New York and Berkeley. Around the base of the great glass dome in Preston Bradley Hall these words are inscribed: "Books are the legacies that a great genius leaves to mankind which are delivered down from generation to generation as presents to the posterity of those who are yet unborn." Amen, Joseph Addison...

The building is bejeweled with similar sentiments culled from the work of canonical authors:

  • "A library implies an act of faith which generations still in darkness hid sign in their night in witness of the dawn" (Victor Hugo)
  • "The real use of knowledge is this: that we should dedicate that reason that was given us by God for the use and advantage of man" (Francis Bacon)
  • "A good book is the precious life blood of a master spirit embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life" (John Milton)


I drank my fill of domes, arches, grand staircases and mosaic aphorisms, then left this monument to the value of literature elated by the juxtaposition of its Tiffany-domed reverence for beauty & truth with the muscular, vertical thrust of the downtown skyscrapers that surround the old Chicago Public Library.

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