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Huge Tiffany Dome Reopens for Business

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People have gazed up at the stained glass Tiffany dome at the Chicago Cultural Center for more than a century now. It’s 38 feet across and thought to be the largest Tiffany glass dome in the world. Craftsmen spent months restoring it. Now it’s back on public view, and it’s as bright and colorful as when Tiffany Glass and Decorating created it. Chicago Public Radio’s Lynette Kalsnes followed the restoration process.

The way cultural historian Tim Samuelson describes it, the Cultural Center, is a flirtatious building. It’s covered in marble and mosaics that gleam in the light.

SAMUELSON: It’s actually a building that will wink at you in unexpected places. So you can walk in, and there will be one little piece of light flashing at you from somewhere. You turn, and it’s gone. It will be winking at you from somewhere else.

Over time, dirt and grime dulled the pink, green and amber glass in the dome at Preston Bradley Hall. But when the building opened in 1897 as the Chicago Public Library, it sparkled.

SAMUELSON: Chicago was really trying to show itself as a city of culture, and amidst the reputation the city had as being one of stockyards and smokestacks. So Chicago was successfully vying for getting the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and one thing that was very conspicuously missing was a central library.

The design included two glass domes to let in natural light. But historians think the Tiffany dome began to leak in the 1930s. That’s the last time people saw sunlight streaming through the dome. Workers capped it with concrete and copper, and turned to artificial light instead. They also turned the glass panels upside down, so chunks of faceted glass that used to sparkle like rubies were hidden away. Samuelson remembers going to the library as a kid.

SAMUELSON: It was kind of a mixed experience. You could see the elegance of the past. But the way I remember it, it was kind of dark, it seemed kind of dirty. I might even go so far as to say it was a little smelly, and not in a pleasant way.

The Evanston firm Restoric started work on the $3 million restoration project in December. It was a painstaking process that involved cleaning more than 30,000 pieces of glass by hand. First they had to remove the glass. Craftsmen strapped themselves to the dome with safety harnesses and gently lowered 243 glass panels. Then they stripped away the copper and concrete around the exterior. I spent some time with the restoration crew at Botti Studio back in March.

ambi: Sound of studio

On this day at the studio in Evanston, craftsmen are making rubbings of the panels. They take the panels apart, soak the glass in a soapy solution and brush away the dirt.

ambi: Brush sound

The water instantly turns brown.

KALSNES: They’re so grimy, they’re unrecognizable when they start.
EDBROOKE: And light still goes through them, so this is going to look amazingly different when we reinstall these.

That’s Jim Edbrooke, one of the glaziers.

EDBROOKE: This is just amazing. It really gives you a sense of who the artist is too, and his thought process, and how he knew how this whole field of color was going to look.

ambi: Nail sound

In another room, craftsmen are reassembling the windows by hand. They curve leading around one piece of glass at a time, then carefully fit it back into a panel.

SMOUCHA: For all of us here, it’s almost like raising a child.

Michael Smoucha is the manager.

SMOUCHA: You’re working with these pieces day in and day out every day of the week for months and months and months. By the time you’re done with it, you have a very intimate understanding of the piece. You’re extremely hands on.

Two months later, workers from Evergreen Painting Studios are ready to gild the decorative cast iron cage that holds the glass.

ambi: Gilding sound

They brush on aluminum leaf, and tiny pieces fall down like silver snow. Then they add several coats of glaze to antique the frame. The final step? Reinstalling the glass panels.

The head of Botti Studios, Chris Botti, says restoring the dome’s been a spiritual experience. The first time he worked on it more than 30 years ago, he was with his father and brother. But both have since passed away. Now he’s there with his nieces.

BOTTI: Knowing Tiffany walked in that room and had a part of it and now you’re part of that history, knowing that you’re affecting the humanity of people or the fiber of people by keeping part of that room alive, has a special place in all our souls.

Botti says working on a Tiffany dome is like restoring a Rembrandt. And exposing the dome to natural light again will let the stained glass play off the mosaics.

BOTTI: It’s like turning the light on in a closet or turning the light on in a room full of art work. And all of a sudden, now it will appear as it should be.

Art glass domes are designed to change color with the changing light of the day. The position of the sun is what gives them life.

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