Last week the city announced an upcoming event honoring the retirement of Tim Samuelson, its first and—since there’s no plan to hire a replacement—only, cultural historian.
After 19 years on this job, and a total of 33 years as a city employee, Samuelson will be feted with a free public (but virtual) send-off next week. It’ll be hosted by WTTW’s Geoffrey Baer, with local luminaries including Mayor Lori Lightfoot on hand to pay tribute to this legendary scavenger, official packrat, and, in Lightfoot’s words, “walking encyclopedia of Chicago history.”
The next day, Samuelson, who’ll turn 70 in June, will be back at work, as the city’s first cultural historian emeritus.
That means he’ll still be in his artifact-packed fifth-floor office in the Cultural Center, planning exhibits and serving as a public resource on the city’s history. Only now, it’ll be as a volunteer. And the major project he’ll be working on is a new, long-term Cultural Center exhibit of his own vast collection of historic Chicago stuff.
Never mind that the city council last month passed a resolution congratulating him “on the occasion of his retirement from city service”: he says there’s no way he’ll be giving up the job that’s been “a dream gig for a classic obsessive history nerd like me.”
Samuelson has a passion for bringing the flotsam and jetsam of history to life by telling the stories that give those objects meaning. He says it’s an obsession that dates back to his Rogers Park childhood, when he somehow “just gravitated to older things.” He was the nerdy kid at Armstrong grade school who put up a fuss over a plan to tear original metal cornices off the building. At Sullivan High, he “kept them from painting over WPA murals when the art teacher thought they were ugly.” And on his college application, he told Roosevelt University that he aspired to matriculate there, not to get an excellent education, but because “I want to go to school in Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Building.”
By the time he enrolled at Roosevelt, he already had a significant mentor: photographer and Sullivan scholar Richard Nickel. It was a connection facilitated by an astute librarian at the Art Institute’s Burnham Library. “I met [Nickel] when I was 16 years old; he would take me along to Sullivan buildings on the south side that were being demolished,” Samuelson says. “I would help him salvage pieces and document the buildings.” On April 13, 1972, the day that Nickel was killed in a demolition collapse at the Stock Exchange building, “I was supposed to be with him,” Samuelson says: “He got there earlier than I did.”
After college Samuelson worked for architect John Vinci (who recreated the Stock Exchange Room at the Art Institute), and in the early 1980s, he took a job with the city Commission on Chicago Landmarks. In 1997, he moved to the Chicago Historical Society as curator of architecture.
While he was still at the Landmarks Commission, however, he met artist Barbara Koenen. She was a new hire at the Cultural Center, and her boss, public art program head Mike Lash, had sent her to Samuelson to learn enough about leaded glass windows to supervise a project involving them. Samuelson was immediately smitten: “She came into my office, and, I swear to God, it was love at first sight,” he says. They married in 2000.
Two years later, Koenen summoned him to a Department of Cultural Affairs Christmas party at Maxim’s where Commissioner Lois Weisberg took him aside. “We’re gathering a team in different cultural disciplines,” Weisberg told him. “I want to do history, and you’re the person I want to do it.” She gave him a two-word job description: “help everybody.”
Tim Samuelson conducts a tour of the Chicago Cultural Center from the Washington Street entrance.
Samuelson estimates his personal collection at 20,000 to 25,000 objects. Some of it is stashed at Mana Contemporary, where he has a studio, and some is in the basement of the Trader Joe’s at Wabash and Roosevelt. If you’re looking at the salmon display there, it’s directly under your feet.
Lately he’s been thinking he should get these objects documented and digitized, because “if I drop dead, nobody will know what they are.” He’s created a nonprofit to help fund that, and says he decided on the nominal retirement in order to have the freedom to do it.
The plan at the Cultural Center is for a rotating display in a space to be designed by Chris Ware. It’ll be housed in its own room just off the Washington Street entrance, and will spill down the west corridor, which Samuelson considers prime exhibit space because, in this gloriously free venue, it leads to the restrooms. “I love it that everyone goes through that corridor, even if you’re coming in off the street to use the bathroom,” he says. “It’s the most traveled, most seen area in the building.”
COVID permitting, the exhibition could open by fall. v
Celebrating a Living Landmark—a Tribute to Tim Samuelson is scheduled for 4 PM, Thursday, January 28. Register by January 26 at eventbrite.com.