The skylit Henry Crown Gallery at the top of the great central stairs at the Art Institute of Chicago is an architectural mausoleum, filled with relics of buildings gone to early graves. Here is a broken column and a chunk of mosaic floor, fragments from Adler & Sullivan’s demolished Garrick Theatre, there the disembodied head of one of the sprites from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midway Gardens on the south side. Carved in glass in what amounts to a tiny crypt is Edgar Miller’s Diana, an art deco charmer who once had a whole building of her own. Surrounded by so many silent mementos of a city that’s gone, it’s no wonder most people miss something odd about the gallery itself: it isn’t finished.
The pink marble columns are handsome, but some of the capitals are only roughed out. A line of carved molding fades away to a sketch of itself, then dies out completely. An egg-and-dart motif stops dead in the middle of a wall. It’s like the masons went to lunch and never came back.
Downstairs at the visitors’ desk, a young guy behind the counter offered a simple explanation: “They ran out of money.”
Sure enough. Pauline Saliga, who was a curator at the museum when she edited the book Fragments of Chicago’s Past: The Collection of Architectural Fragments at the Art Institute of Chicago, says the same thing: “After the stock market crash, work stopped for lack of funding, and by the time the economy boomed again after the war, styles had changed. Nobody was interested in completing a beaux arts scheme. They were more concerned with expansion.” So the unfinished gallery remains as it was when the workers laid down their tools three quarters of a century ago. Today steel girders span the space originally intended for a glass dome, and on several walls a faux finish imitates Tennessee marble. The gallery housing the museum’s fragment collection is the biggest fragment of them all.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy.