One of the real treasures of Chicago’s famed downtown area, the Chicago Cultural Center has delighted visitors with its mix of memorable architecture and educational programming for over 120 years now. Once the site of the Chicago Public Library, today this ornate building is home to an assortment of special events. The Chicago Cultural Center is located at the prime corner of Washington Street and Michigan Avenue, just across the street from Millennium Park and only three blocks south of the Chicago River. This makes it very accessible for all sorts of visitors, and places it right in the midst of several of Chicago’s other most popular attractions.
Chicago Cultural Center History and Background
Designed by the same firm of architects responsible for constructing the Art Institute of Chicago’s original building, the Chicago Cultural Center took five years to build. When it first opened in 1897, it was the home of the city’s central Chicago Public Library location—a role it would serve for nearly a century. During this time, the building became a favorite of local Chicagoans. Nicknamed “The People’s Palace,” it was much beloved for its stately, neo-classical exterior and its beautiful, luxurious interior. The Chicago Cultural Center was eventually added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
In 1991, with the opening of the Harold Washington Library Center just a few blocks to the south, the city of Chicago decided to transition the old library into a free public museum and cultural center. Today, it serves as a fine gathering place for long-time residents and first-time visitors alike. It hosts a wide range of events, including museum exhibits, art shows, music concerts, film screenings, roundtable discussions, educational lectures, and much, much more.
What’s at the Chicago Cultural Center
The building’s interior is full of breathtaking features, including marble staircases, hardwood floors, glass mosaic artworks, and more. Arguably the two biggest highlights of the inside of the Chicago Cultural Center, though, are its twin stained-glass domes. Arranged symmetrically, with one at the north end of the building and the other at the south, these are unforgettable attractions. On the southside of the building you’ll find a stained-glass Tiffany dome that consists of some 30,000 pieces of glass; not to be outdone, the one at the north end of the building consists of a whopping 50,000 pieces!
A number of services are provided throughout the Chicago Cultural Center, too. On the first floor of the building there is a Welcome Center. This facility is run by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and is a great resource for those visitors new to town seeking more information on the many attractions found in or near Millennium Park. Free tours of the Chicago Cultural Center are given each week on Wednesdays through Saturdays at 1:15pm. These tours usually last between 45 and 60 minutes, and depart from the Welcome Center. No advance registration is needed.
There are no dining options located within the Chicago Cultural Center itself, but given its prominent location squarely in the heart of Chicago’s bustling downtown, there are a great many restaurants and bars to be found in its immediate vicinity and beyond.
Tips for Visiting the Chicago Cultural Center
- The Chicago Cultural Center building is open Mondays through Fridays between the hours of 10:00am and 7:00pm. On weekends, it is open from 10:00am to 5:00pm. The Chicago Cultural Center closes in observance of most major holidays.
- The Chicago Cultural Center is easily reached by a variety of means. For those driving, the Millennium and Grant Park parking garages are nearby. Those interested in public-transportation options can get here by their choice of several different CTA buses/trains and/or Metra train. A bike-share facility is also located directly in front of the Chicago Cultural Center itself.
- Free Wi-Fi service is available to guests visiting the Chicago Cultural Center. Simply log onto the “ChicagoWiFi” network for access. While signal quality and strength varies on account of a number of factors, many visitors report one of the best spots for service here is Randolph Square (found on the northside of the building on the first floor).
- The majority of the Chicago Cultural Center is accessible. If you or someone in your traveling party require additional assistance, please not that there are a few wheelchairs available for use here. Just ask any security officer you encounter in the lobby area for more details.
- One of the most remarkable features of the Chicago Cultural Center experience is just how many different events and activities it hosts. Many of these exciting programs are free, too! For a full, up-to-date list of what’s happening here and when, make sure to visit the Chicago Cultural Center’s website in advance of your visit.