In the course of preparing to open the Modern Wing, I was lucky enough to get to immerse myself in the architectural history of the Art Institute, from its very earliest days. Days that were so early, in fact, that the Art Institute actually rented its gallery space. It wasn’t until 1893 that the museum moved into its Michigan Avenue building. Shortly thereafter, the museum began its own manifest destiny in a series of additions to the north, south, and east.
This is my favorite early photo of the Art Institute . . .
. . . in part because the building looks so incredibly clean and incredibly lonely, compared to what is around it. But I also love this photo because it shows a very different Chicago, a Chicago in which the lake literally ran right up into the back of downtown. The area between the museum and the lake has been filled in with landfill over the generations. The lake still isn’t far from the museum, but it’s not in the back yard either.
In 1916, the museum made the big move “across the tracks” by building Gunsaulus Hall, which still stands today, as do the railroad tracks that run under it. From the end of Gunsaulus Hall, you can cover a lot of the twentieth century if you spin in a slow circle.
The old limestone exterior of Gunsaulus Hall is now an interior wall. If you stand at that interior/exterior wall and look directly to the left, you see the Modern Wing of 2009.
Swiveling slightly, you see the steeply canted ceiling of the 1976 east side addition, designed by Walter Netsch of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill.
Directly in front of you is McKinlock Court, built in the 1920s. This plan—two levels of galleries surrounding a courtyard open to the sky—was supposed to be the model for future development of the museum. At the time it was built, museum leaders liked the idea of expanding in small modules rather than big wings. The modules were cheaper to build and less disruptive. And they could be completed as funds became available. However, only a round or two of these modules were built (and later demolished to make room for more ambitious additions). McKinlock Court is the only “module” to still be standing.
Finally, to your right is the Rice Building for American art, completed in 1988 and home to such works as American Gothic and Nighthawks.
So, without moving your feet, you can hang on to 1916 and view 2009, 1988, 1976, and 1924. They are all radically different but share one common characteristic: Indiana limestone. Every addition to the original building is clad in Indiana limestone.