So often we think we need to hop on a plane to appreciate architectural details like stained glass window, but actually you don't need to go to Rome or Paris to see breathtakingly beautiful works of stained glass. America has had many stained glass masters, the most famous of which was Louis Comfort Tiffany. Tiffany became so known because he was an innovator in making glass with new colors and textures, and his windows eventually eliminated the lead outlines to make glass panels comparable to paintings. For a stained glass tour of Chicago, here are a few of my recommendations, most of which are free to visit.
Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington St)
A required stop for any visit to Chicago would be to the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington St.), which has the world's largest stained glass Tiffany dome (pictured above). The other grand dome of this former Chicago Public Library is often overlooked because it lacks that famous name and the exaggerated designation of "world's largest." It is striking all the same and also has a couple of grand stained glass windows displayed next to it, too.
Fourth Presbyterian Church (26 E. Chesnut St)
Right across from the Water Tower is the Fourth Presbyterian Church, and during regular business hours you can pop into this quiet refuge to enjoy the stunning red and blue hues of the windows in the Gothic Revival Church. These windows are of the more Gothic traditional style, but in the United States the art form of stained glass reached new heights - literally and figuratively.
The motherlode of Chicago stained glass is of course, the Smith Stained Glass Museum out on Navy Pier. The first of its kind in the U.S., this museum has over a hundred works of window art on display. The collection is divided into Victorian, Prairie, Modern and Contemporary to show the evolution of the technique and content in this art form. In America, stained glass windows started extending into non-secular spaces during the Gilded Age.
Smith Museum of Stained Glass Window at Navy Pier
Did you know that the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows is nestled on the lower level of Navy Pier's Festival Hall? One of the most impressive public collections of stained glass in the United States, each window tells a story. You'll walk from 1870 to the present day in stained glass artwork along the 800-foot-long museum.
Some of the Smith collection is now in the Pedway passage that surrounds Macy's Department Store. This new exhibit of stained glass beautifies this space, normally just a thoroughfare for commuters. My favorite has a flowering tree with a spider web delicately designed into the branches. Many of these windows come from late 19th-century mansions long ago torn down. It became highly fashionable among Chicago's elite to have a custom-made window or dome or two in your mansion, likely located on Prairie Avenue, along one of the city's many grand boulevards, or in the area once known as "McCormickville" which is just off today's Mag Mile.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Hyde Park
With the era of the Prairie School and Frank Llloyd Wright, stained glass took on another form with the geometry of art glass windows that were evocative of natural shapes of flowers or trees. Rather than depicting an entire picture, the Prairie School style of window is mostly clear, and illuminates a room with various pieces of color. To experience this kind of window, you can visit Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Hyde Park.
First United Methodist Church
Inside the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church (77 W. Washington St.) are stained glass panels of a more modern time. Made in the 1940s and onward, these panels show both religious matter and a little bit of modern life in the city. You can wander in to have a peak, or if you want to hear the forgotten stories behind these windows you could join a Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour which stops here. Also their Sky Chapel on the top of this 1920s skyscraper, which is one of the highest places of worship in the world, has more stained glass windows. Tours are offered for free every day at 2pm.