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Community Roots: Selections from the Local Legacies Project
Collage of Local Legacies
Chicago World's Fair, 1893
Court of Honor, 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition (World's Fair). Photo courtesy Chicago Historical Society

Preserving a City's Legacy: The Chicago Historical Society

Founded in 1856, the Chicago Historical Society is Chicago's oldest cultural institution. Since its inception, the Historical Society has functioned as the communal memory of the city, a memory that is encoded in a collection of 20 million books, manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, costumes, decorative and industrial arts objects, prints, photographs, news film, and architectural drawings and fragments. The collection is one of the greatest resources for American and urban history in the United States, unique in its scope, breadth and depth.

CHS was founded by Chicago's leading entrepreneurs to help develop their brawling frontier town into a balanced city with proper regard for both local and national history. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed the first facility and the original collection perished. For the next two decades, CHS built its collection, and in 1896 constructed a new facility. In the 1920s, the Historical Society purchased thousands of artifacts and manuscripts from the estate of Charles F. Gunther. This purchase augmented CHS' already extensive research library and archival holdings and formed the basis of its nationally known collection of decorative and industrial arts objects, paintings and sculpture, and costumes. In 1932, to accommodate the Gunther purchase and to present the growing collection using modern interpretive techniques, the Historical Society built a new red-brick Georgian-style facility in Lincoln Park, its current location, designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White.

CHS flourished over the next decades, continuing to develop its facility as a museum of American history. By 1945, under the guidance of director Paul Angle, CHS staff began more self-consciously to collect and interpret Chicago's history. In the 1970s, director Harold Skramstad further developed this approach using current urban history scholarship to shape the Chicago History Galleries, an innovative exhibition on the city that opened in 1979.

Since 1993, under its current president and director Douglas Greenberg, CHS has strengthened and developed its role as a major urban history research center committed to humanities programs that convey the evolving history of Chicago's diverse citizens. A five-year strategic plan, implemented in 1995 with the participation of virtually the entire staff, identified and met the challenges and opportunities facing museums and research centers. A new strategic plan and mission statement, adopted in January 1999, will strengthen CHS' programs and ensure that the institution thrives in the 21st century.

Project documentation includes four pages of text and 21 transparencies, nine 8 x 10 photographs, and two slides in the areas of fine and decorative arts, world's fairs, sports, the Chicago Fire of 1871, transportation / elevated railroads, architecture, and manufacturing / industry.

Originally submitted by: Rod R. Blagojevich, Representative (5th District).

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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