The Chicago Cultural Center was built in 1897 as the city’s public library, and there’s actually a funny story behind it. Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, a sympathetic Great Britain sent more than 8,000 books to the city to help rebuild its library. What our English compatriots didn’t know was that Chicago never actually had a library to begin with. In 1872, Chicago’s City Council passed an ordinance to build a library. Originally, that library was a water tank, used to store the books sent from England, and it moved from one location to another for the next 24 years, until the $2 million Central Library, now the Chicago Cultural Center, was complete, and crowned with an incredible centerpiece: the largest Tiffany dome in the world. Today, it’s one of the most visited attractions in Chicago. People come to view its formal Beaux Arts exterior and a sumptuous interior of rare marble, fine hardwood, stained glass, and mosaics of Favrile glass, colored stone, and mother-of-pearl inlaid in white marble.
The Cultural Center also houses a Visitor Information Center, which makes it an ideal place to kick-start your visit. If you stop in to pick up tourist information and take a quick look around, your visit won’t take longer than 15 minutes, but the Chicago Cultural Center also schedules an array of art exhibitions, concerts, theater and dance performances, films, lectures, and special events (most free), which might convince you to extend your time here. A long-standing tradition is the Dame Myra Hess classical concert series every Wednesday at 12:15pm in Preston Bradley Hall. On the first and third Friday of most months, toddler-friendly music and performance is offered at 11am, and a lunchtime dance party for Loop office workers begins at noon. Free guided architectural tours of the Chicago Cultural Center run at 1:15pm on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. A permanent exhibit in the Landmark Chicago Gallery on the first floor features images and artifacts gathered to tell the story of the city’s architectural treasures and historic preservation in Chicago.
The Cultural Center is the home base for the Chicago Greeter program, which offers free, 2- to 4-hour guided visits by Chicagoans, customized to local neighborhoods or special interests of your choice (tel. 312/744-8000; www.chicagogreeter.com).