A Tale of Two Tiffanies Restored

Originally Published 2009

By Gary L. Cole AIA, Esq.

A Tale of Two Tiffanies Restored – The Tiffany Dome at the Chicago Cultural Center and the Tiffany Chapel at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art

Two of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s finest Chicago works have recently been restored to their original splendor – one in its original setting, the other half a country away following a century-long trek that ended in the subtropics of central Florida.

When the Chicago Public Library (now the Chicago Cultural Center) was completed in 1897, Tiffany’s 38-foot glass dome, comprised of approximately 30,000 separate pieces of art glass set in 243 separate panels adorning an iron frame, formed a spectacular focal point to the city’s new, richly detailed neoclassical library. The receiving vaults supporting the dome were covered in marble and mosaics, also by Tiffany. It remained unaltered until the 1930s when the original protective translucent glass covering Tiffany’s dome was replaced with a concrete and copper dome . . .

which obscured all natural light essential to the dome’s original visual effect. And so it remained for nearly 70 years.

At Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, among the many art glass treasures exhibited at the Tiffany & Co. pavilion, located within the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, was a neo-Byzantine chapel. The chapel was composed of marble steps and platforms leading to an alter set within sixteen columns which supported four receding concentric arches focused around a glass mosaic reredo panel of two facing peacocks, symbolizing eternity. The steps, altar, columns and arches were richly detailed with multi-colored glass mosaics and Christian iconography. A separate room to the right of the altar contained a baptismal font composed of a massive mosaic and lead-camed glass covered sphere, which sat on eight short columns. Richly complex leaded glass windows displaying biblical scenes and narratives surrounded the chapel and a 1,000 pound iron and glass electrolier cross hung above the heads of viewers. Stories emerged that visitors were so transfixed by the chapel’s ecclesiastical effect that they removed their hats in respect. In 2008, I acquired an original 18-page letter written by a woman who attended the Columbian Exposition in October 1893, and who reported the following about the Tiffany Chapel:

“Tiffany’s exhibit was fine. One of his exhibits was a chapel with full size altar in it, illustrating their interior decorations, and it was perfectly beautiful. The stained glass windows were representations of scenes in the Bible and were lovely.”

But just as time and circumstance had been unkind to Tiffany’s Dome, it would be even more so to his chapel. After the Columbian Exposition closed in 1893, and for the next nearly seventy years, the chapel repeatedly escaped near destruction. It was first purchased by a wealthy patron, Mrs. Celia Whipple Wallace, and donated to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, where it was installed in the church’s basement crypt, awaiting final above-ground installation upon completion of the church. But the chapel was ill suited for the low-ceilinged crypt and it suffered from neglect and poor maintenance. By 1916, Mrs. Wallace had died and the church’s new architect, working in the Gothic Revival style, made it clear that the neo-Byzantine Tiffany Chapel would never emerge from the crypt. Tiffany had the undamaged remains of the chapel removed from the church at his own expense and installed in an outbuilding at Laurelton Hall, the 84-room mansion he built in 1905 at his 600-acre Long Island waterfront estate. Tiffany died in 1933 and left Laurelton Hall and the chapel to the Tiffany Foundation. In 1949, the Tiffany Foundation began auctioning off parts of the estate and the chapel, eventually selling Laurelton Hall for $10,000. The estate was mostly unused and reportedly served as a storage facility for refrigerators until in 1957, when it was largely destroyed by fire – though the chapel was relatively undamaged. And there it sat, exposed to vandals and the elements – waiting.

Always visible to the public, Tiffany’s dome began its journey back to the artist’s original vision in December 2007, when the Chicago Cultural Center began its restoration. The art glass panels were removed by a glass restorer and each panel was taken apart, cleaned and repaired with new leading. Decorative polycarbonate panels replaced the original art glass panels during the restoration. In January 2008, the 1930s concrete and copper dome which had blocked natural light for most of the previous century was finally removed and was replaced with a multi-layered protective glass above the iron frame of the art glass’s dome. In April 2008, Preston Bradley Hall – the location of Tiffany’s dome within the Chicago Cultural Center – was closed for the restoration of the dome’s iron frame, which was covered with aluminum leaf and coated with an amber-tinted glaze to resemble gold leaf. In June 2008, the restored art glass panels were reinstalled in the restored iron frame. The room opened on July 1, 2008, and the Tiffany Dome was presented to the public in its naturally lit condition for the first time in nearly seventy years.

The Tiffany Chapel was to take a more precarious road to restoration. In 1957, one of Tiffany’s daughters contacted Winter Park, Florida philanthropists Jeannette and Hugh McKean about purchasing one of the windows at Laurelton Hall. Hugh McKean had been a student of Tiffany’s at Laurelton Hall in 1930, and in 1955 Jeannette McKean had produced a retrospective of Tiffany’s work at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park (named after her grandfather). Visiting the ruins of Laurelton Hall, the McKeans decided to purchase the chapel and arranged to have it crated and moved to Winter Park (the McKeans also purchased Laurelton Hall’s four-columned Eastern-influenced loggia and in 1978 donated it to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it can be viewed today). But despite their careful instructions to the carrier, much of the chapel was merely tossed into the back of a truck for the long journey to Florida, damaging some of the elements. The McKeans then spent several decades acquiring portions of the chapel that had been previously auctioned off by the Tiffany Foundation, which, along with the pieces of the chapel, were stored in wooden crates in the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum, awaiting restoration. Jeannette McKean died in 1989 and Hugh McKean died in 1995. In 1996, the museum began planning an expansion to house the Tiffany Chapel. Over a two-year period the chapel was restored by a team of art glass conservation experts and in 1999 the restored Tiffany Chapel, including the wood entrance door from its Laurelton Hall installation, was opened to the public at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum – 106 years after its first public appearance at the Columbian Exposition.

The Chicago Cultural Center, despite its prominent location at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street, has always seemed to me to be one of Chicago’s most underrated neoclassical public buildings. It was the location for several key scenes in Brian De Palma’s 1987 “The Untouchables,” including the scene where Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness tosses gangster Frank Nitti from the roof of the building. The unrestored Tiffany Dome can also be seen in the background of several of the movie’s interior shots. But besides the Tiffany Dome, the building’s fine handling of interior and exterior Greek and Romanesque elements, the marble Grand Staircase, bronze entry doors, Vermont green marble detailing, coffered ceilings and Tiffany wall mosaics, put it in a class with neoclassical buildings anywhere – including two 19th century Chicago contemporaries, the Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry (formerly the Columbian Exposition’s Palace of Fine Arts). And with the restoration of the Tiffany Dome, the City of Chicago has recognized the Chicago Cultural Center as one of Chicago’s many public architectural treasures. Chicago visitors, looking for a break from the frenetic Millennium Park, can step across Michigan Avenue for docent-led or self-guided tours of the calmly elegant Chicago Cultural Center and view the restored Tiffany Dome.

But for those with warmer climates in mind, I recently had the chance to visit the Tiffany Chapel in its restored setting at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum. The restored chapel sits serenely in its own wing lit from above by the enormous restored electrolier and surrounded by its original baptismal font and art glass windows in a setting that may indeed approximate Tiffany’s original intent at the Columbian Exposition. The museum also houses many other Tiffany products, leaded glass windows and other artifacts from Laurelton Hall that were rescued by the McKeans. For enthusiasts of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s work, it’s well worth the pilgrimage to Winter Park – itself an interesting alternative to Orlando’s well-known theme parks and a nice place to escape Chicago’s lake effect snow and the land of the wind chill factor.

© Copyright Gary L. Cole 2009

Photo of Chicago Cultural Center Tiffany Dome by BWChicago

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