The Randolph Street staircase leading to the Chicago Cultural Center's Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall
The Randolph Street staircase leading to the Chicago Cultural Center's Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall Credit: Kevin Eatinger

On November 13, 11th Ward alderman James Balcer introduced a City Council resolution calling for a hearing to consider renaming the Chicago Cultural Center.

The name Balcer is suggesting is the Eleanor “Sis” Daley Cultural Center.

The resolution says the name change would “suitably commemorate Eleanor Daley’s work in preserving the building.”

And what was that work?

According to the resolution, in February 1972, when the building was threatened with destruction and her husband, Mayor Richard J. Daley, had just appointed a committee to study its future, Sis made “a rare public comment.” She responded to a reporter’s question by saying that she was “for restoring and keeping all the beautiful buildings in Chicago.”

Lo and behold, “within three weeks, the Mayor’s committee announced that the building would be saved.”

Balcer’s resolution sailed through the full council, and the hearing will be held by the Committee on Special Events, Cultural Affairs and Recreation at a yet-to-be-announced date in January or February.

On the day it passed, 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke told the Sun-Times that it’s a “splendid” idea. Burke, who was on the City Council in ’72, added that “Mrs. Daley was reputed to be the person solely responsible for saving the building when it was scheduled for the wrecker’s ball.”

“Reputed” is relevant.

Eleanor "Sis" Daley
Eleanor “Sis” DaleyCredit: Jerry Tomaselli

Sis Daley’s opinion may well have influenced her husband, who was already catching heat for the demolition of Louis Sullivan’s Stock Exchange Building, which had begun a few months earlier.

But she definitely wasn’t battling alone to save what was then the central building of the Chicago Public Library from the wrecker’s ball. That, says Landmarks Illinois founder Richard A. Miller, is a myth: “It was a lot more complicated.”

In fact, Landmarks Illinois, then the Landmarks Preservation Council, counts the Cultural Center as its first successful campaign, Miller says.

And that happened largely because the Landmarks Preservation Council merged with a group called the Chicago Heritage Committee, which included a guy named Charles Staples who’d been working, along with others, to preserve the library building since 1965.

You can still find Staples, now 84, at the Cultural Center. Nearly every Wednesday morning he mans a desk in the Washington Street lobby, greeting visitors. Staples, who’s compiled a four-volume archive on the fight to preserve the building, knows everything about it, starting with its origins as “a sort of stepchild of the great Chicago Fire of 1871.” That’s how he put it in a history he wrote in 1969 and submitted three years later with the application he filed to get the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Chicago Public Library was established in 1872, after British citizens (including Queen Victoria) sent a care package of thousands of books to our famously burned-out town. The library collection was initially kept in a water tank on LaSalle Street, and then in a series of temporary quarters. In 1883 the City Council picked a plot of land, on Michigan Avenue between Washington and Randolph, as its future site. Then a small park, the plot was already historic—it had once been the home of early Chicago settler Jean Baptiste Beaubien. It was also contested: the state legislature gave a Civil War veterans’ group part of it as the site for a memorial hall. The dispute, which went to court, ended in an agreement that the building would be shared, split into one part library, one part Grand Army of the Republic War Memorial.

Which explains the strangest thing about the Cultural Center—its radically split personality. The architects who got the design job were Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, a Boston firm (successor to H.H. Richardson) that had just completed the plans for a sibling structure, the Art Institute of Chicago. They were instructed to make it classical—like the buildings for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. And fireproof.

According to Staples’s history, a couple of other oddities were the result of an effort to placate neighboring businesses: it was stipulated that there would be no entrance for the building’s block-long frontage on Michigan Avenue, and that it would have to be set back 15 feet from both Washington and Randolph Streets.

Staples also writes that the engineering that made it possible to anchor the 72,000-ton structure on Chicago’s ground of clay and mud was precedent setting, “the first known [pre-]tested application of deep-driven piles.” The building, with three-foot-thick exterior walls of limestone and granite, sits on 2,357 oak logs, each 13 inches in diameter and 50 feet long, standing 74 feet below ground level.

The thousands of Chicagoans who flocked to see this palace of culture it when it opened in October 1897 were dazzled, as visitors still are today. The interior—five stories on one side, four on the other—is a symphony of marble, mosaics, elaborately coffered ceilings, and sweeping staircases, capped by two huge stained-glass domes.

The domes in the GAR Memorial Hall and Preston Bradley Hall, the latter the world’s largest made of Tiffany stained glass
The domes in the GAR Memorial Hall and Preston Bradley Hall, the latter the world’s largest made of Tiffany stained glassCredit: Kevin Eatinger

The Randolph Street entrance and staircase lead to an exquisite second-floor rotunda with a floor of glass block and mosaic tile, a delicate 40-foot-diameter dome, and towering doors opening to the majestic green-marble GAR Memorial Hall, embellished with the names of 30 Civil War battles. Its bejeweled twin, the Washington Street entrance, is made of white marble inlaid with predominantly green mosaics of glass, mother-of-pearl, and stone, set in patterns and text that consists of literary names and quotations. The glittering chips stud the walls and staircase leading to multiarched Preston Bradley Hall, where more marble and mosaic is crowned by the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome.

Now the building also houses an auditorium, a tourist center, a Story Corps recording studio, offices, meeting rooms, and numerous galleries, including a couple of high-ceilinged stunners on the fourth floor modeled after rooms in Italian Renaissance palaces. But by the mid-20th century it was too small for the library. The mood of the times—an out-with-the-old frenzy of destruction—had already cost the city Sullivan’s Garrick Theatre, the Chicago Federal Building (designed by Henry Ives Cobb), and numerous other irreplaceable structures. Detractors referred to the library building as a “monstrosity,” and there were calls to tear it down. Among the hundreds of newspaper articles and letters in Staples’s archive is a carbon copy of a letter to the editor he and his wife, Joan, sent the Chicago Daily News in May 1965, protesting the paper’s description of the building as a “drab gray fortress.”

The Washington Street staircase leading to Preston Bradley Hall
The Washington Street staircase leading to Preston Bradley HallCredit: Kevin Eatinger

“It is anything but that,” Staples wrote—the first volley in what is now his nearly 50-year campaign as the building’s advocate.

Staples headed up the library efforts of a group of preservationists called the Chicago Heritage Committee, and he continued in that role after they merged with the Landmarks Preservation Council in 1972. By the time Sis Daley made her keep-the-beautiful-buildings remark to a journalist, he and other activists had been waging an increasingly visible battle for seven years.

Once the mayor decided to save it, the building underwent a three-year renovation (blame that for the jarringly utilitarian ramp between the north and south sides). It became the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center and then, after the library completely moved out in 1991, the Chicago Cultural Center.

Oddly enough, this very same suggestion—that the building be renamed in honor of Sis Daley—arose a few years later. And since she was alive then, and able to state her opinion to yet another journalist, we know exactly what she thought of it.

“Thank you so much, but no thanks,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1999. “Chicago is a prettier name than Sis Daley, and it means more to all sorts of people.”

Many of the people who worked to save the building aren’t around anymore, but those I’ve been able to talk with agree with Sis. Some point out that we’ve already got enough public buildings and spaces named for the Daley family to create confusion: currently there’s the Richard J. Daley Center and Plaza, the Daley Bicentennial Plaza (about to become the Maggie Daley Park), DePaul University’s Richard M. and Maggie C. Daley Building, the Richard J. Daley Library at UIC, the Richard J. Daley College, the Richard J. Daley branch library in Bridgeport (Balcer’s ward), and the Richard M. Daley branch library in West Humboldt.

The fifth-floor teachers' room in what was then the Chicago Public Library, 1926
The fifth-floor teachers’ room in what was then the Chicago Public Library, 1926Credit: Sun-Times print collection

But there’s a more important reason that they don’t think the building should be renamed, in honor of Sis or anybody else. Unlike the city’s other major cultural institutions, the Cultural Center was built without the private philanthropy of rich people. The money for this opulent “People’s Palace” was raised through a special tax on Chicago’s citizens. And when it came time for renovations, the public footed the bill again.

Preservation Chicago interim director Ward Miller isn’t old enough to have fought for the building in the 1960s, but when I asked if he had an opinion, he said that “for more than a hundred years the building’s name has reflected what it is, who built it, and who it’s dedicated to—the people of Chicago. I think that’s an honor in itself, and I think that should be retained.”

He had a suggestion that I heard, in one form or another, from others, including Staples: Sis Daley could be honored inside the building, with a plaque or a room named in her honor. One of the fourth-floor galleries is dedicated to legendary arts supporter Sidney Yates. “Maybe the other fourth-floor reading room or some other space could be named in honor of Sis Daley,” Miller said. “I think that would be appropriate and beautiful. Maybe that’s what the City Council could do.”

While they’re at it, he said, “They should also resolve that the name of the building can never be changed.”