10 Things You (Probably) Don’t Know About The Art Institute of Chicago

Art Institute of Chicago - Chicago, Illinois - October, 2012 - 001a

Thousands of people walk through the Chicago Art Institute every year to see “American Gothic” and “Nighthawks.” Students of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” can check out “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”

But only the true architecture geek will bypass the historic works of art on display at Michigan Avenue and Monroe in favor of the architectural curiosities of the grand old building. How much do you know about the architecture of the Art Institute? As Harry Callahan said, “You’ve got to ask yourself a question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”


1The Fullerton Hall Auditorium was built in 1898. When it was restored in 2001, the Tiffany dome was uncovered. It was blocked out during World War II, to accommodate the American blackout period, preventing Nazis from flying over, spotting the structure and bombing it to smithereens.


2There are a couple of paintings yet to be uncovered above the auditorium stage.


3The roof over the Pritzker Garden outside the Modern Wing is known to Art Institute insiders as the “Flying Carpet” because it seems to float without any visible means of support. The blades of the Flying Carpet are strategically positioned to allow in only northern light, which is optimal for viewing paintings and minimizes damage.


4The Christopher Wool exhibit (which runs through May 11) is noteworthy both for its stark abstract paintings and because it’s the first time in many years that the north wall of the Regenstein Hall exposed an open window, the better to allow in light to accentuate Wool’s weird works.


5You’ll find some other recently opened windows in the Art Institute. Stroll through the Alsdorf Galleries and you’ll see a few north facing windows illuminating the Himalayan Art. They were bricked over for years, until a renovation opened them to allow in light, and a view of East Randolph Street skyscrapers.


6For the ceiling above the Grand Staircase, the original design called for a dome, but the Art Institute ran out of money to construct it, so it has a open atrium. That worked out just fine because the atrium illuminates the Impressionist works, which are intended to be all about open air and sunlit colors.


7The Ando Gallery is a dark, contemplative space with 16 columns, a traditional element of Japanese architecture. It’s intended to be a transitional space to put visitors in a soothing frame of mind before they move to the remainder of the museum.


8Just outside the entrance to the Ando Gallery you’ll see a pair of horizontal panels that were part of Japanese Pavilion from the 1893 Columbian Exposition. They’ve only been at the Art Institute for about eight years. Before then, they spent a good deal of time under the seats of Soldier Field where they apparently didn’t offer any positive vibes to the Bears.


9The recreated Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room is pretty much just that—recreated. Only a fraction of the space contains original elements of the trading room. The rest is a (very accurate) recreation.


10The Art Institute is very green, especially the Modern Wing. Scrims over windows automatically raise and lower to adjust to sunlight. Lights are also programmed to dim themselves as necessary to maximize energy and minimize environmental stress on the works of art.

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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