Side Order: Chicago's stained glass museum

Czech art nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha or one of his students may have crafted these painted-glass panels representing the four seasons.
Czech art nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha or one of his students may have crafted these painted-glass panels representing the four seasons. (Becky Krystal/The Washington Post)
By Becky Krystal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2010; 2:04 PM

It was a glorious afternoon in Chicago, in spite of the stiff breeze coming off Lake Michigan. Like many a tourist before me, I couldn't fight the pull of the Navy Pier.

After the obligatory Ferris wheel ride, though, I sacrificed a few hours of sunshine to explore the cool, dark Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows.

Even though it spans an impressive 800 feet along the lower level of the pier's Festival Hall, the museum somehow manages to feel like an undiscovered treasure that few passersby really slow down to savor. On the day of my visit, I had to contend with people rushing to and from a health and fitness expo. And the calm of the galleries is frequently punctuated by the slamming of the heavy doors that lead to the parking garage, or the payment-kiosk voice announcing, "Your parking fee is $24."

Still, none of these distractions significantly detracts from the 150-piece collection, which lays claim to being the first museum in the country dedicated to stained-glass windows.

The Navy Pier, with its somewhat chaotic mishmash of diversions, might not be the first place you'd expect to find something with such a serious-sounding mission. Having the museum in Chicago, however, makes perfect sense when you learn about the stained glass displayed at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exhibition, including the spectacular Tiffany Chapel designed by the master Louis Comfort Tiffany himself. (Also, it just so happens that the museum's namesake family is from the Windy City.)

According to the museum brochure, the beginning of the exhibit offers a video about the history and production of stained glass windows (not running when I was there) and a group of Victorian examples from the Chicago area. I happened to stumble into the collection, however, at what seemed like the perfect spot: a grouping of windows designed by Tiffany and fellow multitalented artist John La Farge.

The windows undoubtedly were impressive in their original locations, which included churches, artists' studios and private homes. Seeing them up close lets you examine what you wouldn't be able to observe at a distance. You can admire them as you would a painting. There are delicately detailed faces and glass that ripples in the robes of biblical figures. Landscape backgrounds luminesce in the same way the sky does at sunset. And in an especially striking display in a separate Tiffany gallery, the lights behind one piece toggle on and off to transform the window from a dull milky white with an almost indistinct tableau to a warm, glowing scene featuring an angel.

It's easy to get lost in quiet contemplation of the beautiful works dedicated to the deceased or a particular religion. But those more typical windows are just a fraction of the variety at the museum. Many of the examples salvaged from houses are simply adorned with flowers or, in the case of Frank Lloyd Wright, geometric shapes. Among the more contemporary windows are depictions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Michael Jordan and an experimental piece that was created by a computer to look like stained glass even though it's actually film pasted onto plexiglass.

Visitors not in a hurry may also notice that someone on the staff has a wry sense of humor. Just outside the entrance to a cafe is a window entitled "Bacchanalia," with the subject lustily dangling a bunch of grapes overhead. It originally graced a wine bar in Milan, but here it hangs in easy sight of neon Bud Light and Coors Light signs.

While admiring the artistry of a Tiffany landscape, I encountered a family clearly on their way to some other point on the pier. Two little girls dashed into the gallery chatting enthusiastically. At this point, I didn't mind the broken silence.

"Oh, this is so cool!" one of them exclaimed.


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