Saturday, May 30, 2015

Chicago Library and G. A. R. Hall Dedication -- May 30, 1893

Chicago's "Y" Symbol on the third floor of
the original library building (JWB Photo)
At 2:00 p.m. on this date, May 30, in 1893 Superior Court Judge Kirk Hawes stood before a crowd of citizens at the corner of Randolph and Michigan and said, “We have gathered here, my comrades and fellow citizens, to lay the corner-stone of a structure that shall serve not only as a store-house for the wisdom of the ages, but also to perpetuate in the minds of coming generations the memory of those who periled their lives in defense of their country when our bond of national unity was so seriously endangered.”  [Chicago Tribune, May 31, 1893]

The cornerstone to which the judge referred was for the new Grand Army of the Republic Hall and the library that would enclose it.  With the formal introduction in place, Judge Hawes began to outline the history of the property that would be the site of the “magnificent structure, which will be a credit to the city and take high rank among the costly edifices already so numerous in Chicago”.

Looking east at Randolph and Michigan, 1893
The piece of ground on which the library and hall would rise was originally part of the Fort Dearborn military reservation, established in 1803 and encompassing 57 acres from the Chicago River on the north to Madison Street on the south and from the lake (which at that time lapped ashore just east of Michigan Avenue) on the east and State Street on the west.

In 1839 the fort was decommissioned, and the land was subdivided by the government and sold in lots to the highest bidders.  In the plat that was drawn up at the time, the whole area was set down as “public ground.”  Thought was given at one time to selling it to the Illinois Central Railroad, something that, thankfully, did not occur.  From the time of the 1871 fire until 1890 the city assumed some control over the property although it remained a “desolate, barren, unsightly spot of ground, without trees, shrubbery, grass, or anything green.”

Beginning in 1880 three separate attempts were made to pass federal legislation giving the land over to the building of a Grand Army memorial and a public library building.   In 1888 the United States Senate passed such a bill, but it was referred to a House of Representatives committee chaired by “an unrepentant rebel from Charleston, S. C.” who “openly declared that he was not anxious to commemorate the military achievements of Union soldiers.”

Randolph and Washington (right and left),
looking west from Michigan Avenue, 1893
It was at this point that the famous “lakefront case” came before the United States Supreme Court, which found in its lengthy ruling that “the United States had no right, title, or interest” in the piece of land on which the present building stands but that “the title was vested in the municipal corporation of Chicago as the agent of the State of Illinois.”

At the time Illinois legislation giving the land to the Grand Army Hall and Memorial Association was passed on July 31, 1889 the directors of the Chicago Public Library came forward with a new scheme.  They proposed a library building that covered the entire block between Randolph and Washington and within the building pledged to “construct and forever maintain a memorial hall and such smaller halls and ante-rooms for the period of fifty years as should be required for Grand Army purposes.”

When Judge Hawes concluded this history, a contingent of eight veterans in full uniform stepped forward carrying their muskets.  A flag was raised and “in the rays of the bright sun, wafted by the breeze from Lake Michigan, ‘Old Glory’ fluttered proudly over the site of the new building.”  The Pullman band played the Star Spangled Banner, after which a prayer was offered and a list of the cornerstone’s ceremonial contents was read.

The oculus of the George Healy and Louis Millet
ceiling in the original G.A.R. Hall (JWB Photo)
General E. A. Blodgett, the Department Commander of the Illinois Grand Army of the Republic, then stepped forward, concluding the dedication with these remarks . . .

In the name of the soldiers and sailors who have saved our Nation we thank you for the honor.  We rejoice that our city thus proclaims to the world that patriotic self-sacrifice is not to be forgotten.  We trust that our beloved land may never again be deluged in blood . . . The safety of our country is in the intelligence, the moral character, and the patriotism of her citizens.  We believe this structure will be an object lesson to inspire loyal hearts, and a treasure house to enrich minds.

Today, of course, the great building begun on this day in 1893 has outlived its original purpose and serves as the city’s visitors’ center with a healthy program of exhibitions, lectures, and entertainment.  The design by Boston architects Shpley, Rutan and Coolidge, the same firm that designed the original building of the Art Institute just two blocks to the south, stands in the Beaux Arts splendor of the past while transporting its visitors through the present and into the future of a city that has always had big ambitions.

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