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Tiffany on High

A masterpiece at the Chicago Cultural Center has been restored.

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By Neal Vogel

This restored Tiffany chandelier was installed a few months after the library opened and represents the earliest known installation of copper-foiled Tiffany lamps. Photo: Patrick L. Pyszka, courtesy of the City of Chicago.

Chicago is home to many spectacular late 19th- and early 20th-century interiors that influenced the decorative arts throughout the country. Designed and produced by Chicagoans, many of these interiors are off the beaten path and out of public view. However, near the heart of the Loop sits one of the most accessible and finest examples of American decorative arts, created by a collaboration of Bostonians, Chicagoans and New Yorkers. This is no “Second City” interior. It’s world class, and it’s open to the public year-round at the Chicago Cultural Center. Designed by Charles Coolidge of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge (Boston), the Cultural Center was originally designed to house two entities, the Chicago Public Library in the south wing and a memorial hall for the Grand Army of the Republic in the north. The building was commissioned and designed in the heat of planning and showcasing Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition to the world, and it was heavily influenced by the architects and decorative artists involved.

The Chicago Public Library opened in 1897 to considerable fanfare, and the Delivery Room and ancillary spaces decorated by Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company were praised for their timeless beauty. Many design elements were freely adopted from the firm’s Exposition chapel. The art glass was housed in a cast-iron dome fabricated by Chicago Ornamental Iron and embellished with bead & reel, acanthus leafs and egg & dart motifs. As noted by Department of Cultural Affairs historian, Tim Samuelson, “The building successfully bridged the ongoing debate between people who advocated looking to the past for artistic inspiration and those who sought a dynamic expression of contemporary design, technology and craft.”

Preston Bradley Hall’s art-glass dome, photographed in early morning light, is rarely seen this blue by the public. Photo: Patrick L. Pyszka, courtesy of the City of Chicago.

Largest Tiffany Commission
The interior represents Tiffany’s largest commission in nearly 50 years of production and includes the largest Tiffany dome (measuring 38 ft. in diameter); the most extensive use of Tiffany mosaics (more than 10,000 sq. ft. adorn the walls) and the earliest known examples of Tiffany’s copper-foiled chandeliers, pre-dating the company’s patent for the process. Copper-foiled lamps would soon become Tiffany’s greatest commercial success, contributing immensely to his world renown and establishing his reputation as America’s most accomplished decorative artist. The art-glass dome contains hand-rippled glass and plating (multiple layers of glass), a Tiffany trademark. There are approximately 30,000 pieces of glass in 243 “sections” covering more than 1,000 sq. ft. Repetitive fish-scale panels below the oculus are studded with 5,568 sparkling chipped-glass jewels that are copper foiled atop ruby-red backplates and soldered into the matrix. The leading was entirely floated with solder, indicative of the company’s impeccable craftsmanship.

The Hellenistic zodiac in the oculus is an ancient symbol of navigation and exploration. Hovering over the original library Delivery Room, it represents the pursuit of knowledge in books. Photo: Patrick L. Pyszka, courtesy of the City of Chicago.

In hindsight, it boggles the mind that this building barely escaped rooftop additions and the wrecking ball over the years. Restoring the grandeur to this fabulous interior – dubbed Preston Bradley Hall when the library vacated in the 1970s and the building was converted into the Chicago Cultural Center – was a preservationist’s dream. Until recently, the giant Tiffany dome hovering over the south wing sat listless and washed out under high intensity discharge lighting that was installed in the interstitial space between the interior art-glass dome and the exterior diffusing skylight. Its inherent beauty was further diminished by several repair and remodeling campaigns.

In 1935, the original diffusing skylight above the art-glass dome was replaced with a precast concrete and copper roof, eliminating all daylight. Subsequent decorating projects resulted in damaged decorative finishes on the ornamental cast-iron and plaster cornice beneath the dome and over-painting with dull bronze paint. Original uplighting concealed on top of the cornice and accent lighting in large plaster rosettes beneath the cornice were abandoned.

This is the Preston Bradley Hall dome as it appeared with metal halide backlighting, installed in the 1970s. Photo: Neal A. Vogel, Restoric, LLC

The art glass was in a sad state of repair. Most of the repairs were completed in situ, which contributed to their poor execution. Approximately 1,700 cracked pieces, 220 Dutchman-lead repairs and 250 replacement pieces were found in the art glass throughout the dome; much of the damage was caused by years of lighting maintenance in the interstitial space. The art glass replacements were poorly executed with bad matches that were too dense and lifeless compared to the original art glass. (Interestingly, Tiffany “phased” the art glass from relatively dense at the top of the dome to more translucent at the bottom. This helped achieve a uniform appearance in the deep lightwell.) Approximately two-thirds of the retainer clips were missing, and many art-glass panels were loosely held in place by gravity alone. The glass was filthy with a century of dust, oily grime, paint drips and paint overspray from work on the diffusing skylight.

The precast concrete installed in 1935 is removed from the original 1897 steel frame; what appears to be art glass below the workers is actually a graphic reproduction on Lexan. Photo: Neal A. Vogel, Restoric, LLC

Insulated glass units weighing several hundred pounds were set with a crane. Photo: Elizabeth Blaisius

Perhaps the most interesting project discovery was that all of the art-glass panels below the oculus, approximately 90 percent of the dome, were flipped over in their openings with the texture of the ripple glass and chipped jewels facing up. Why the art glass was inverted remains a mystery; possibly to counteract deflection (that is, “bellying” or sagging) or to create a more “modern” look by flipping the smooth face to the viewer. This probably occurred when the diffusing skylight was covered in 1935 – when streamlined modernity was in vogue. Regardless, when the diffusing skylight was removed, the sparkling daylight filtering through the jewels was rendered obsolete.

The chief goals of the restoration campaign were to: 1) restore daylight to the art glass and interior; 2) eliminate artificial light in the interstitial space between the inner and outer domes; 3) restore the damaged art glass and decorative finishes; and 4) install new lighting to provide optional scenes for evening programs. To this end, the center oculus of the dome and central chandelier were restored in 2005. A temporary diffusing skylight was installed over the oculus, and partial daylight was restored for the first time in 70 years. This inspired the restoration of daylight to the entire dome.

The new custom fabricated SuperSky diffusing skylight features a custom finish to mimic the original copper verdigris patina and a cupola designed in the spirit of the original skylight. Photo: Elizabeth Blaisius

Several alternatives were considered to construct a new diffusing skylight on the roof: a) re-setting glass into the original steel frame; b) piggy-backing a new aluminum skylight on top of the original frame; and c) building a much larger skylight over the entire lightwell.

The client ultimately decided to piggy-back the new skylight, installing insulated glass units along with a cupola ventilator in the spirit of the original design. Original cast-iron radiators, HVAC ductwork and artificial lighting that cluttered the interstitial space and caused shadows were removed. New catwalks and chicken ladders were installed to facilitate inspections and maintenance. New hydronic heating was installed to condition the space and melt snow off the skylight. LED lighting was installed in lieu of the original carbon filament incandescent lighting on top of the interior plaster cornice (uplighting the cast-iron frame). The skylight and LEDs substantially reduce the need for incandescent lighting and contribute a “green” aspect to the project. (The 36 carbon filament lights restored in the rosettes are only used intermittently.)

Each art-glass panel was carefully aligned during installation to register the leaded glass with adjacent panels. Photo: Elizabeth Blaisius

The art glass was completely removed for restoration, and temporary faux art-glass graphics mounted on Lexan were installed in its place. The art glass was completely disassembled and re-leaded with new reinforcement. Custom glass was produced to match missing glass and replace previous poor replacements. The saddle bars were re-installed in their original location while new fins were introduced to the topside; bent to conform to the existing lead lines, they remain imperceptible from underneath.

The original stacked perimeter leads were replaced with monolithic leads and reinforced with a steel bar for better purchase under the retainer clips. The art glass was naturally reinstalled in its original position, with the rippled glass and chipped jewels facing the interior and viewer. The art glass commissioned for the dome was designed to coordinate with the interior decoration. The frame color, natural light and artificial light created the best context for both the art-glass and cast-iron dome. This symbiotic relationship was lost over the years by the elimination of daylight and cornice lighting and damage to the gilded finish.

The gleaming cornice rosettes and relief were added late in the project, bridging the beautiful mosaics adorning the walls and art glass above. The full inscription reads, “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.” Photo: Patrick L. Pyszka, courtesy of the City of Chicago

The decorative finishes on the underside of the cast-iron dome were damaged by aggressive cleaning campaigns and corrosion of the cast-iron frame. The original specifications mentioned many layers of spar varnish along with gold and aluminum leaf. However, microscopic investigation of the dome revealed that the actual finishes deviated from these historic specifications. Instead, glazed finishes of aniline dyes were employed over aluminum leaf. No evidence of gold leaf was found, but experts indicate that aluminum leaf was more novel and expensive than gold leaf in the 1890s.

Surrounding Ornamentation
Just as the art glass had become muted and lifeless, so had the surrounding ornamentation and finish of the frame, detracting from the overall effect. Re-gilding the ornamental cast iron with aluminum leaf and glazed finishes helped re-capture the original luster and restore the dual personality of the dome. In strong sunlight, the vibrant gilt bolsters the structural elements. At night, the glass silhouettes when the modern exterior lighting is dimmed or turned off, allowing the frame to become the dominant architectural feature. Restoration of the plaster cornice was added late in the project but provided the crucial link between the dome and glass mosaics adorning the walls.

The original Delivery Room (as it appeared in 1897), where library attendants delivered books from the closed stacks behind; the beautiful mosaic tile floor is no longer intact and is covered by carpeting today. Photo: Special Collections & Preservation: Harold Washington Library Center, City of Chicago

Today, the restored Preston Bradley Hall is among Chicago’s most significant architectural treasures and glistens for all who venture inside. Since the restoration, visitation is up nearly 30 percent for a building that serves nearly 800,000 visitors annually, and weekend tours have swelled three-fold. Moreover, concert audiences are now reveling to the sounds of The Chicago Chamber Musicians under an ever-changing array of opalescent glass and gilded aluminum leaf lit by natural daylight. Sunshine, storms and cloud cover are perceived inside, establishing an existential connection with the world outside.

The project was completed for approximately $2.2 million and received an award for preservation excellence from the Chicago Landmarks Commission. If Chicago is your destination, and you love traditional buildings and the decorative arts, Preston Bradley Hall’s Tiffany dome should not be missed. Also, be sure to venture into the north wing to see the other fine dome in the Grand Army of the Republic Hall by Healy & Millet. The oculus and partial daylight were also restored here in 2005, and the City of Chicago is planning to restore this interior in 2010. The Department of Cultural Affairs and Department of General Services staff provided the daily on-site guidance, vision and decision making to see this project to fruition and restore the grandeur of Preston Bradley Hall for generations to come. For further information, visit

Click here for a listing of suppliers of domes and skylights

As with all projects of this scale, many restoration contractors and professionals were integral to its ultimate success including:

Neal Vogel is the principal of Restoric, LLC, a restoration consulting and contracting business specializing in historic churches and synagogues, as well as civic and institutional buildings. He teaches restoration classes for The School of the Art Institute, Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies and The Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago and has authored numerous technical articles on building restoration for the National Park Service, Old-House Journal and Clem Labine's Traditional Building.