literary landmarks chicago


Writer’s Paradise: Find Your Muse at Chicago’s Literary Landmarks

The Newberry Library (Courtesy: The Newberry Library)

The Windy City long has had a love affair with the written word. It’s been home to storied poets including Carl Sandburg (whose poem, “Chicago,” coined the iconic phrase “City of the Big Shoulders”), playwright Lorraine Hansberry (who penned “A Raisin in the Sun”), and more recently, “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn. Even the historic Printers Row neighborhood in the South Loop pays homage to the city’s book publishing roots. If ink flows through your veins, you can still find spots around town that celebrate Chicago’s literary heritage. Whether you’re a local or just traveling through, here are three you shouldn’t miss:

Do Your Research, Reading and Much More

A five-story granite edifice on tree-lined W. Walton Street, The Newberry would be right at home on Paris’ Right Bank. This privately funded independent research library near Chicago’s tony Gold Coast ‘hood dates back to 1877, just six years after the Great Chicago Fire nearly wiped out the city. It’s elegant, for sure, but don’t let the stately structure keep you from stepping inside.

The Newberry is free and open to the public — all you need to do research in one of its famed Reading Rooms is a reader card, which you can pick up with a photo ID and proof of your current home address. With more than 1.5 million books, 5 million manuscript pages, its focus is Western Europe and the Americas. As you’d probably expect, one of its strongest areas is Chicago and the Midwest.

Stroll in (any day except Sunday) and check out its rotating exhibitions, which have featured everything from calligraphy displays to rare books on religion to sheet music from World War I. (Free tours at 3 p.m. Thursday and 10:30 a.m. Saturday show the lay of the land). Its well-stocked, first-floor bookstore carries everything a bibliophile could need or want, from gorgeous journals to witty greeting cards from local artisans.

The Newberry also is renowned for its annual Book Fair each July and the accompanying Bughouse Square Debates, an ode to free speech that takes place just across the street in Washington Square Park. Don’t miss its year-round Adult Education Seminars on a wide range of topics (literature, language, and Chicago culture among them) and weeks’ long writing workshops designed to bring out your inner Hemingway.

Get a “Cheezborger! Cheezborger!”and Hang With Reporters

If you’re a Windy City journalist or know someone who is, you’ve likely visited the original Billy Goat Tavern at 430 N. Michigan Avenue.

For decades, this legendary bar and burger joint has been a gathering spot for media types — not surprising, considering it’s housed on lower Michigan, the street that runs beneath the Chicago Tribune and the former site of the Chicago Sun-Times. Founded in 1934, it’s dark, laid-back, and a bit ironic — just like many of the writers who’ve dined and drowned their sorrows here.

The Billy Goat relishes its literary links, displaying a “Wall of Fame” that pays homage to many of “Chicago’s media giants,” including Sun-Times’ columnist and movie critic Richard Roeper, Tribune columnist John Kass, and now-deceased newspaper columnist Mike Royko, a working-class hero who famously wrote for both major dailies.

Folks beyond Chicago also know about the hangout, as it was immortalized by Chicago (and former Second City) comedians John Belushi, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd back in 1978, thanks to a “Cheezborger! Cheezborger! No Fries — Cheeps!” sketch on “Saturday Night Live.”

The Billy Goat’s limited menu was at the center of the joke — and even today, you won’t find much beyond simple burgers on Kaiser rolls (and still no fries). Now an entrenched tourist destination, “the Goat” has several other locations in Chicagoland — but none have the literary status of the original.

Find Library Roots and Tiffany Domes, All Under One Roof

The city’s former central public library, the Chicago Cultural Center majestically stands on the Magnificent Mile, directly across from Millennium Park.

While it’s now a year-round hub of all sorts of free visual and performing arts, this Beaux Arts-style building was first built in 1897 as a library and a Civil War memorial. And the architectural showplace had some patrician early patrons, as England’s Queen Victoria and her poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson were among those who donated books to its shelves after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Sometimes referred to as “The People’s Palace,” it certainly is, with its two awesome Tiffany stained-glass domes (one of which is the world’s largest) and interior rooms fashioned after the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, and the ancient world’s Acropolis in Athens. And it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated Chicago Landmark.

But with hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, it’s still free and open to the public seven days a week (holidays excluded). While the South Loop’s gargoyle-adorned Harold Washington Library (named for the city’s book-loving first African-American mayor) has replaced it as Chicago’s main repository of books, the Cultural Center still stands as a monument to the graceful arts.

Think music, dance, theater, film, lectures and art exhibitions. And to ensure its accessibility to folks from all over the world, one of the city’s two Choose Chicago Visitor Information Centers is housed inside.