AIA Illinois Award 2022

The Grand Army of the Republic Rooms, located in the north wing of the Chicago Cultural Center, have been meticulously restored. The $15,000,000 project was a gift to the City of Chicago from an anonymous donor. The conservation of the original 1897 interiors included the laborious removal of later over painting to reveal the original Tiffany designed color scheme and the complete restoration of the original art glass dome that consists of 62,000 pieces of colored glass. Large bronze light fixtures were replicated, and a new glass skylight was installed that allows for natural light to shine through once again.

Challenges and Resolutions

The challenge of the project was to restore the three Grand Army of the Republic Rooms to their original state of 1897 as designed by architecture firm, Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge with an interior color scheme by Tiffany. A full year of preparation began with design and construction team working together to determine what the original finish treatments were and how to conserve them. The original wall treatments sometimes had as many as five layers of paint and glazes. It was found that by carefully removing the 1970s gray paint the original richly colored painted surfaces were still intact and could be touched up and conserved. Overpaint in flat areas was removed using “exacto” knives. In the areas between decorative plaster elements cotton pads and acetone were used. These labor-intensive methods took a crew of a dozen conservators over six months to accomplish. It was also determined that the original aluminum leaf of the decorative plaster elements was never overpainted and could also be conserved. The original elaborate multi-armed bronze light fixtures had been removed decades earlier were able to be recreated using detailed historic photographs and modern 3D printing technology. The restoration of the 40-foot diameter art glass dome was perhaps a bit more straightforward but nonetheless also labor intensive as it entailed cleaning and recaming of 42,000 individual pieces of glass. The original skylight over the dome had been covered with concrete panels and a copper roof in the 1930s. These were removed and a modern glass skylight system installed over the original steel frame thereby allowing for natural light to shine through once again.

Explain Unique Design Features and Originality of the Design

The most unique design features are the original color scheme for the decorative plaster walls and ceilings of the three rooms and the large art glass dome in the rotunda. It was all designed by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge with a color scheme by Tiffany to act as a harmonious whole, each room different yet complimentary to one another. The rich red paint of the upper walls of the GAR Hall were created using multiple layers of paint and glazes that resulted in a deep and slightly mottled color that works beautifully with the ochre and false patinaed decorative plaster of the ceilings and arched insets. Aluminum leafed plaster ornament completes the scheme. The coffered plaster arches over arched exterior windows and insets over the display cases and double doorways feature a series of 39 different painted “Corps Badges” which were also restored. The large 14-foot-tall mahogany double doors were all carefully removed, restored, refinished and reinstalled along with all the original bronze hardware.

The most unique feature of the restoration was the ability to remove all the later gray paint and reestablish the original painted surfaces. Months of preparation and mockups demonstrated that this could be done using careful removal techniques and selective repairs and inpainting. This was a highly unusual and very successful treatment especially at this scale.

The missing original bronze light fixtures were replicated through a close collaboration of the architects and the lighting fabricator. Using high quality historic photographs of the originally completed rooms it was possible to develop patterns for the castings using 3D printing techniques. All the recreated glass shades were hand blown.