Credit: Jon Straus

Maggie Daley’s Thanksgiving Day death triggered a groundswell of opinion—in the media, at least—that the Chicago Cultural Center should be renamed for her.

The rationale? She founded and chaired a fund-raising organization that helps support the center, and she kept an office there. She also lent her name and political muscle to other causes, especially Gallery 37, which she and Lois Weisberg cofounded, and to the After School Matters program that grew out of it. She waged a bravely public, nine-year battle with breast cancer. And her wake was held in the building’s magnificent Preston Bradley Hall.

Mayor Emanuel says he’s considering options for honoring her, talking them over with her family. If they decide on the Cultural Center, who could object?

Well, for starters, the folks who fought to save the beaux arts masterpiece when her husband and his father were trying to get rid of it.

WHPK radio host Marta Nicholas recalls that she was on her way to a symposium at the Cultural Center on the morning of October 30, 1989, when she heard something alarming: a WBEZ report that Mayor Richard M. Daley was planning to turn the former main facility of the Chicago Public Library over to the Museum of Contemporary Art. (The library was slated to move to its own new building in 1991.)

The keynote speaker at the symposium was Fred Fine, Chicago’s first commissioner of cultural affairs and founder of Columbia College’s Department of Arts, Entertainment, and Media Management. Fine had also heard the report, and the symposium —”Cultural Diversity/Artistic Adversity”—had brought together a ready nucleus of people interested in keeping the building as a venue for diverse, free cultural programming (which the library had been doing there for a dozen years). UIC School of Public Health program evaluator Eve Pinsker (then a University of Chicago PhD student) remembers that she and Nicholas drafted a petition to the mayor on the spot, and were gathering signatures before the day was over.

They weren’t alone in their concern. Daley’s original commissioner of cultural affairs, philanthropist Joan Harris, objected to his MCA plan, and then abruptly resigned. Her replacement was Weisberg, who would hold the job for two decades, before her own abrupt departure. But it turned out that the MCA, which had already been promised the Streeterville Armory site, didn’t want the old building. They didn’t think its jeweled marble interior was a good setting for contemporary art, and didn’t want to deal with a north wing encumbered with a permanent Civil War museum. The Art Institute didn’t want it either. Daley had a white elephant on his hands, and was grousing that the city the couldn’t afford to maintain it.

For the next several years, with the building’s fate uncertain, Nicholas, Fine, Chicago Artists’ Coalition head Arlene Rakoncay, International Music Foundation founder Al Booth, and consultant (and former director of the Busch-Reisinger and Cooper Union museums) Hedy Landman spearheaded a grassroots movement that was formalized as the Friends of the Chicago Cultural Center. Nicholas says she collected signatures and mailed petitions that were never acknowledged to Daley and Weisberg, “every week” for two and a half years. Pleas to the two first ladies (Maggie and her mother-in-law) also went unanswered, Nicholas says.

Meanwhile, Maggie Daley was suggesting that the building would make a good home for the Children’s Museum, and the mayor’s office was floating the idea that cultural activities might be relocated to the old Goldblatt’s store.

Fine and Booth are dead now, but Landman, Rakoncay, Pinsker, and Nicholas all believe that the Cultural Center already has the only name it needs. So does Charles Staples, who did the paperwork that got the building on the National Register of Historic Places, and worked from 1965 to 1973 to prevent the even more onerous threat of teardown.

And so did the first Mayor Daley’s wife, Sis, commonly credited with saving the building from that threat by speaking up for it. When the Tribune‘s John Kass suggested (in 1999) that it be named for her, Sis demurred: “Chicago is a prettier name than Sis Daley, and it means more to all sorts of people,” she said.

Sis, by the way, did speak up in public, but not until 1972. “That,” Staples observes drily, “was at the peak of our campaign, seven years into it.”

Pinsker, an anthropologist, notes that ideas now incorporated in the building, like the cafe and the tourism center, “initially came from the activists, although Weisberg or Maggie Daley may have been credited for them.”

“There’s a very general point here,” Pinsker says, “about top-down versus bottom-up models of social change. For those in power, views that portray a privileged public figure or policy maker as heroic mover and shaker support their positions. But if you look at what really seems to make change happen, it’s the grassroots activists. If they hadn’t been there, in the early 70s or the early 90s, I don’t think we’d have free public access to the Cultural Center today.”

Nicholas left this week for India, but before she took off she mailed a letter to Mayor Emanuel, suggesting that a Loop building could, indeed, be named for Maggie. The one that would make sense, she wrote, is the one across the street from the Cultural Center— 66 E. Randolph, the home of Gallery 37.

As for the Cultural Center, Nicholas continued: “To have any name of the Daley family on that 1897 building . . . would be an insult to history. . . . It was The People who—without cooperation of either Mrs. Daley Jr. or Sr., despite myths to the contrary—stood up to the plans of both Mayors Daley Sr. and Jr. to discontinue that building as the People’s Palace.”

Staples, the building’s senior volunteer historian, is at the Washington Street entrance every Wednesday morning, greeting visitors. If you see him there and ask, he’ll tell you that this place, originally built with a special tax paid by the citizens, shouldn’t be anyone’s vanity plate.

“It should continue to honor the city’s marvelous legacy of culture,” Staples says. “The building is properly named the Chicago Cultural Center.”