museum

A Forgotten Chicago Museum, Part I


Chicago is known for its world-class museums.  People travel from across the globe to visit the Field Museum, the Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, and of course, Glessner House Museum.  Very few people, however, are aware of the short-lived “Chicago Museum” that opened here 140 years ago.  In this article, we will explore that museum.  Next week, we will discuss the architect, Thomas Tilley, as well as the second “Chicago Museum.”

The city recovered rapidly from the devastating fire of 1871.  By 1874, the downtown area had been largely rebuilt, and the population of the city was growing.  This provided the perfect opportunity for entrepreneurs to open businesses that would provide recreational activities for residents and visitors alike. 

Work on a new museum building was announced in an article in the Chicago Tribune dated May 5, 1874:

“A new theatre and museum, talked of for some months, is to be commenced immediately.  Mr. Thomas Tilley, author of the now famous ‘Eureka’ plan for the Court-House, has submitted designs for the building, which have been adopted, and the work will proceed without delay.  The theatre is to be a credit to the city, and will cost $250,000 in all.  The projectors of the enterprise are Messrs. E. F. Runyan and R. T. Race, the former of the law-firm of Runyan, Avery & Comstock, the latter of Irving Park.  The lessee of the theatre is W. Van Fleet, formerly manager of the Dearborn Street Theatre.”

The building was situated on the north side of Monroe mid-way between Dearborn and Clark.  Immediately to the east stood Haverly’s Theatre on a site occupied by the U.S. Post Office and Custom House prior to the Fire.  The museum had a frontage of 102 feet on Monroe and extended back 190 feet.  A desirable feature of the site was that a 40 foot wide court known as “Custom House Place” ran along the east side of the building and another 40 foot wide court ran along the backside of the building back toward Dearborn.  In a city where the fire was still very much on peoples’ minds, this had a great advantage:

“The arrangements for emptying the building is unequaled in this city, as it can be cleared in a little more than one minute, all doors opening on open thoroughfares.”

The overall style of the building, as shown in the illustration at the top of the article, taken from the June 1874 issue of The Land Owner, is clearly Second Empire.  The Tribune article gave specifics on its exterior design:

“The elevation of the principal façade on Monroe street shows a high style of French renaissance.  It presents a front divided into four stories above the basement to the main cornice, and a picturesque and artistic Mansard roof surmounting the whole.

“The main and second stories are treated in Doric, the third in Ionic, and the fourth in Corinthian, all enriched with ornamentation.  Each order carries its own entablature on each story, and the main cornice – in Corinthian – is worked up in detail in the most artistic manner.  On the cornice will be lettered ‘Chicago Museum’ – the name of the building.

“The treatment of the Mansard is in full accord and unison with the elevation, and with its corner and central domical towers, will be an elegant crown of the whole front of the structure.  As a whole, the façade is rich, both in design and decoration, and will be, when erected, second to none of its kind in Chicago.  The side, or eastern elevation on Custom-House place, as well as the rear elevation on the court on the north, are treated in a manner becoming the principal front, and are tastefully arranged in brick and stone trimmings.

“The principal entrance is on Monroe street, and is of a design unsurpassed for elegance of style in this city.  Projecting from the main building on each side of the entrance hall, are clusters of columns fluted and enriched in pure Roman-Corinthian style.  The columns carry Persian caryatides which support an ornate entablature on circular pediment.  From the entablature of these columns springs an elliptic arch, beautifully lined and molded.

“Back some few feet from these columns are similar ones, carrying another elliptic arch chastely enriched.  The keystones of these two arches will bear faces in relief representing Tragedy and Comedy.  Twenty feet back from the latter columns are placed their like, and the space between is devoted to a grand vestibule.  Another entrance will be placed on Custom-House place, leading direct from Dearborn street, which will be of an ornate design.”

Due to the depth of the building and the ability to access it from three sides, the arrangement of the interior provided for stores along the Monroe side at ground level and basement with offices above.  The museum and the theatre occupied the back half of the building on all floors, but could be accessed from Monroe as well as Custom House Place.  The Tribune article continued with a description of the ornate interior:

“Entering from Monroe street, and through the magnificent portico and vestibule, a person will find himself in a beautiful decorated hallway, eighteen feet wide and eighteen high, and mounting evenly-dispersed and easily-rising steps, will bring one to the doors of the Floral Hall. 

“This is an entirely new and original conception of Mr. Tilley’s.  It will be eight-six feet long and forty-two feet wide, and will run parallel with the Lecture-Room.  It will occupy the eastern portion of the rear of the lot.  As its name implies, it will be a conservatory.  In the centre will be placed a magnificent fountain, sixteen feet in diameter, and twenty feet high.  It will be of a rich floral design, exposing to the view half-screened naiads, etc.  The basin of the fountain will be circular; but, equi-distant from each other, will be built in it six beautiful urns, placed on tripods and pedestals, bearing fragrant flowers.

“The hall itself will be divided up into promenades, floral grottos, parterres, and pyramidal mounts of sweet-scented flowers, tropical plants, vernal shrubs, dwarf trees, and choice ferns.  This hall will be on a level with the parquet and dress-circle of the Lecture-Room, and two sets of wide double doors will communicate direct therewith.  At each end of this hall will be a grand staircase, wide and easy, the ascent of which will terminate in the Museum proper.

“This will be of the same dimensions as the Floral Hall, but will have an opening in the floor in the centre, looking down on the latter through which the waters of the fountain will play.  This opening will be guarded by an ornamental iron railing.

“From the Floral Hall, half screened by flowers and vines, a stairway will lead below into the labyrinths of an Arcadian Grotto, whose openings, twisting, and turnings will exhibit, through their fissures, distant sea and mountainous views of a novel and unprecedented character.  At the end of the Grotto will be placed an aquarium divided up into reservoirs, in which will be exposed to view members of the finny tribe foreign to the waters of our lake.

“The Lecture-Room will occupy the western portion of the rear of the lot, the stage being at the northern end, and the southern being devoted to the auditorium, which will include parquet, dress-circle, balcony, and family-circle, embraced in three floors.

“Two massive columns will be placed on each side of the stage.  These will be of an order of a new ‘Tilley’ creation, being molded, fluted, and wreathed, ornamented with bas-reliefs and statuettes in full relief, and capped and corniced in a manner hitherto unknown.  There will be two boxes on each side of the stage, one above the other, between these columns, and will be treated in the richness the design affords, and in full accordance with the columns.  Above the boxes will be niches in which statues of Terpsichore and Euterpe will be placed.  Above the entablature, over the outer two of the four columns, will be two large caryatides, representing the muses Melpomene and Thalia, helping to carry an enriched cornice running around the entire girt of the Lecture-Room.  Springing from the entablature of these columns will be the proscenium arch, molded and paneled in an ornate manner.”

The richness of the interior merely served as a backdrop for the collections to be displayed within the Museum portion of the building:

“The contents of the Museum will embrace specimens and curiosities in botany, geology, mineralogy, zoology, etc.  These will be collected from all parts of the world, and Mr. Van Fleet will start at once for Europe to obtain specimens for the Museum, while others will search the Southern Continent of America and other climes to bring back objects for this institution.

“By like stairways as from the Floral Hall an ascent will be gained to the Art-Gallery above the Museum. This gallery will have a similar opening in the floor, and will be filled with the choicest works of art in painting and sculpture.  At one end of this gallery will be erected an elegant stage of moderate proportions, which will be devoted to the use of lectures and other scientific entertainments that are intended to be given.

“Among the many things to be contained in the Museum, will be a ‘Chamber of Horrors,’ in which will be collected such instruments of torture and death in different countries of the present and bygone ages.  As a complement to this will be added life-size casts of the heads of different noted criminals.”

Considering the size and ornateness of the building, it was constructed extremely fast.   Newspapers announced the grand opening of the Museum during the week of December 17, 1874, just a little over seven months after it was announced construction would commence.  Attractions during the opening week included not only the curiosities, but Blaisdell’s Museum Company with John Dillon, Mrs. Mary Myers, and a host of “old favorites” in John Brougham’s comedy of “Romance and Reality.”  Matinees were offered Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and promenade concerts were held in the large halls on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  The cost of admission was 30 cents.

Advertisement for December 25, 1874

The offerings of the museum and a display depicting the devil were the subject of an editorial in the Chicago Tribune, published on January 3, 1875.  Entitled “A Pleasant Pandemonium – The Curiosities at the Museum,” the writer stated in part:

“The Chicago Museum, like all other such institutions, possesses some features of a highly ludicrous description.  It is richer in curiosities than most museums in the country, having a better collection of living and stuffed animals than can be often found. 

“The modern Museum contains something choice in the way of a glimpse into Tophet.  And it is not in a spirit of irreverence or levity that we remark that hell as there represented is a delightfully absurd institution.  It is hardly possible that the brain which emanated this sublime idea of eternal fire intended to show us the whole of that bad place at one glimpse.  The designer evidently meant to give us a peep, thinking that hell, like Cayenne pepper, must be partaken of but sparingly.  Limited as this lurid corner of the Inferno is, it contains the most interested and interesting person connected with the institution, to wit:  the proprietor, who is a bow-legged and sawdusty individual clothed in red tights.  Evidently he has been long troubled with rheumatism.  His joints bulge out with abnormal angularity, and his trident looks like a worn-out walking-cane, repaired with a toasting fork.  He is thin, - lamentably lean, in fact, - and if, as is supposed, he fees upon the souls of departed Aldermen, his supply of provender must have been short indeed. . . Before this macerated monarch of darkness, whose countenance, claws, and cow-heels express the most determined ferocity, bend in supplication the whitened wax-work spirits of two bad human beings.  One is a man, the other a woman.  Kneeling, they stretch themselves out toward the bandy-legged Beelzebub, and, doubtless, appeal for mercy. . . The wall of this compartment is skirted with little devils of grotesque shape and mischievous tendency.”

It is not clear exactly how long the Museum operated.  In June, 1876, the Tribune announced that a Col. Wood, who by this time owned a half-interest in the Museum, was bankrupt and had lost $40,000 in another museum in Philadelphia.  However, the owners of the Chicago Museum wished to make clear that business would not be interrupted by this “unforeseen event” and that in fact the Chicago Museum had been making money since it had opened.  The other two partners, Messrs. Van Vleet and Marsh were expected to buy Col. Wood’s shares in the operation.

Montauk Block

What is known is that the building housing the Chicago Museum was demolished in 1881, having stood for just seven years.  In its place the next year rose the Montauk Block, designed by Burnham and Root, and, at ten stories in height, generally regarded as the first tall building or “skyscraper” in Chicago and possibly the United States.  That building lasted only twenty years, and was razed in 1902 to make way for a larger building for First National Bank.  Today the site forms part of the large plaza in front of the present First National Bank building. 


Next week:  Architect Thomas Tulley, and the second “Chicago Museum”