We weren't expecting to discover a colorful chapter of Chicago's architectural history when we ducked into an air-conditioned building along Navy Pier to cool off on a hot summer day, but we immediately knew we'd stumbled into a real gem when we entered a darkened hallway illuminated by a beautiful collection of stained glass windows.
Many know Chicago for its rich and fascinating architectural history, something we learned a bit about during an architectural boat cruise we took through the Chicago Architecture Foundation during our most recent visit to the city.
But we had no idea that the city was home to the only museum in the country dedicated exclusively to stained glass windows, and we didn't know about the important role that these beautiful windows played in the city's culture and history until we accidentally discovered the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier.
The museum houses a permanent display of 150 stained glass windows along an 800-foot-long series of galleries in Navy Pier's Festival Hall. The windows, collected by Maureen and Edward Byron Smith Jr. and their family since the 1970s, offer a unique window into Chicago history and culture from the 1870s until the present time.
Chicago experienced an unprecedented surge of growth and new construction with the dawn of the 1870s, fueled largely by the need for the city to rebuild a devastating fire in 1871. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution further spurred growth and wealth in Chicago.
The city's voracious appetite for new construction, along with the wealth of industrialists and others able to fund building featuring opulent features like stained glass windows, attracted many of Europe's finest stained glass artisans to work in the city.
More than half of the museum's stunning windows originally graced homes, houses of worship, and businesses in Chicago.
Religious windows often reflected ethnic influences of Chicago's European immigrant populations, while secular windows served more as a showcase for the city's evolving decorative styles. Many of the earlier stained glass installations bore heavy influences of European styles and tastes, while later windows reflected the city's own influence as styles like Art Nouveau and the Chicago Prairie School associated with architect like Frank Lloyd Wright grew in importance.
The museum follows the evolution of Chicago's stained glass styles with galleries divided into sections for Victorian, Prairie, Modern and Contemporary styles. Chicago remains a center of world-class stained glass creation and restoration even today, but the Smith family's foresight in saving the windows during the late 1900s (when stained glass became less popular and many such windows risked being discarded or destroyed) means that visitors can continue to enjoy the stories represented by them.
I particularly loved the dreamy Tiffany Landscape windows and the large window featuring famous women "presented by Massachusetts for the Womans Building of the Worlds Fair at Chicago" in 1893.
The museum, like Navy Pier, is open year round, and admission is free.
© Dominique King 2009 All rights reserved