Chicago is known for being home to grand and magnificent museums, but here is a closer look at a few unexpected cultural attractions with remarkable appeal.
The Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows
Chances are if you’ve ever visited or lived in Chicago, you’ve been to Navy Pier—it is, after all, the city’s most popular attraction, with almost nine million people visiting each year. Many, however, are not aware that tucked away inside Navy Pier, past all the shops, restaurants, and fun houses, is the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows. This is the first museum in the United States dedicated to stained glass, and the 150 windows on permanent display cover an 800-foot long exhibit. While it might seem like most people just breeze past the gorgeous 100-plus year old stained glass on their way through the pier or to the bathroom, the windows, with their skill, history, and masterful beauty, are always there for those who go looking.
Wander through the ground floor of Navy Pier until you discover the Smith Museum. It’s rarely crowded and the darkened hallway lined with backlit stained glass quickly makes you forget you’re at Chicago’s most popular attraction. Turn right into the first small gallery room and be prepared to catch your breath. Louis Comfort Tiffany, the unrivaled master of American stained glass art, designed the awe-inspiring landscapes before you. Son of the other Tiffany you’ve heard of (as in Tiffany & Co, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, etc.), Louis Comfort Tiffany revolutionized American stained glass by using colored glass in his art, rather than painting clear glass as had been the norm. The Richard Driehaus Gallery at the east end of the exhibit features 13 Tiffany windows, each unique in its own way.
Most the windows featured at the museum originally came from Chicago-area buildings and can be defined by four artistic categories: Victorian, Prairie, Modern, and Contemporary. Stained glass had its origins and greatest moments in religious art, and both religious and secular works are represented here. About a third of the way through the exhibit you’ll find gorgeous and detailed German-American influenced church windows, and toward the far east end you’ll find windows designed by father of modern architecture Frank Lloyd Wright, the geometric and abstract designs of which reflect those of his buildings.
The museum is open the same hours as Navy Pier and is always free. For a quiet moment at the least quiet place in Chicago, visit the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows for a piece of Chicago beauty and history that will stay with you.
Other Lesser-Known Chicago Cultural Gems
- The Museum of Surgical Science: Located in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, this fascinating museum has exhibits covering the history of surgery and medicine throughout the world, as well as the ways in which the musculoskeletal system, genes and stem cells, and pain are understood in the study of surgery.
- The Museum of Contemporary Art: Find this gem a few blocks from Chicago’s famed Magnificent Mile, and prepare for all your expectations to be blown out of the water. Visit the MCA for astonishing and thought-provoking art created after 1945. This is the art of our time, so make a trip to this unforgettable museum.
- The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum: Located in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, this museum is a fun way to experience nature at any age. Learn about the green revolution, the biology and physics of Chicago’s waterways, and what monsters look like when they ride bikes. Visit the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, a greenhouse filled with 1,000 butterflies of 75 species, and see where nature meets with a little bit of magic.