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Get A First Look At $15 Million Restoration Of The Chicago Cultural Center Hall Honoring Civil War Veterans

The 62,000-piece glass dome in the Grand Army of the Republic rotunda has been revitalized, while technicians recreated chandeliers and touched up floors, walls and windows in the hall. Free events are available through the weekend.

The restored the Grand Army of the Republic Hall and Rotunda at the Chicago Cultural Center on March 25, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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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 Over the years, its ornate details had been obscured through now-outdated updates.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.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Lizzie Tredinnick, a conservation technician with Evergreene Architectural Arts, cleans details of the Grand Army of the Republic Hall & Rotunda at the Chicago Cultural Center are seen during the space’s restoration on April 26, 2021.

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.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The art glass dome in the restored the Grand Army of the Republic Hall and Rotunda at the Chicago Cultural Center on March 25, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The restored the Grand Army of the Republic Hall with one of the re-created chandeliers.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Details of the restored the Grand Army of the Republic Hall and Rotunda at the Chicago Cultural Center on March 25, 2022.

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:

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The art glass dome in the restored the Grand Army of the Republic Hall and Rotunda at the Chicago Cultural Center on March 25, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The restored the Grand Army of the Republic Hall and Rotunda at the Chicago Cultural Center on March 25, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Architect Gunny Harboe shows his great grandfather’s Grand Army of the Republic medallion on March 25, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Scaffolding stretches across the Grand Army of the Republic Hall & Rotunda at the Chicago Cultural Center as the space is restored on April 26, 2021.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Workers with Evergreene Architectural Arts move through of the Grand Army of the Republic Hall & Rotunda on April 26, 2021.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The restored the Grand Army of the Republic Hall.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The restored the Grand Army of the Republic Hall and Rotunda at the Chicago Cultural Center on March 25, 2022.

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