THE LOOP — Sunlight is shining into the Grand Army of the Republic Hall for the first time in decades with the completion of a year-long restoration in the Chicago Cultural Center.
The building dating back to 1897 originally served as a library and a memorial hall dedicated to Northern soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Over the years, its ornate details had been obscured through now-outdated updates.
But after a grant of services worth more than $15.4 million, visitors can experience how the space once was and learn about who it honors.
Preservation Chicago Executive Director Ward Miller, who has frequented the space since he was a kid, said the restoration is one of Chicago’s best-ever preservation efforts.
“This is really a commitment to Chicago’s architecture in this building, and it’s known as the People’s Palace,” Miller said. “I think it’s further commitment to Downtown Chicago and the city as a whole and our architecture and our built environment.”
Free programs open to the public are planned Saturday and Sunday, including guided tours of the renovated space, performances and discussions. Find a complete list of events here.
The Cultural Center, originally Chicago’s first public library, was spared by the wrecking ball that gutted many historic buildings in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s. It was renovated in the 1970s, became the cultural center in 1991 and received $2 million in upgrades in 1994.
Technicians used precise blades, acetone and cotton swabs to revitalize the original details of the 125-year-old hall. The 62,000-piece glass dome 40 feet in diameter was placed under a cement-and-copper cover, and illuminated to prevent water damage in the 1940s. The stained glass was cleaned and reassembled, and now is protected with a clear cover.
In the hall, the ceiling, walls and crown moulding all were touched up. New carpet was installed to help control sound. Technicians used old photos, architectural drawings and 3D printing to help recreate the long-missing chandeliers. The windows were restored to their original clear glass, allowing more light into the space.
The upgrades, which also include bringing the room to 21st century technological standards, shepherd in “opportunities for artists and organizations to activate the space through performances and exhibitions,” said Erin Harkey, commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the upcoming programming at the hall is an opportunity to teach people not just about the G.A.R., but of “Chicago’s critical role in winning the freedom of slaves, but also freedom of our country as a result of the Civil War.”
Cultural historian emeritus Tim Samuelson took the stage with preservation architect Gunny Harboe and joked, “I really like what you did with the place.”
“I worked in this building for years and it was pretty wonderful, but you knew that this building, this room, was kind of sleeping. Something had happened to it,” Samuelson said.
After leading the year-long project, Harboe stood under the shining G.A.R. logo emblazoned on the wall of the hall and showed a similar medallion of his own great grandfather, who fought in the Civil War.
When Harboe realized this personal connection to his project, it “really sealed the deal” on his passion to bring the space back to life, he said.
Check out more photos of the restoration and reopening:
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