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Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows in Chicago's Navy Pier

"You can't miss it," explained the woman behind the information desk, "just follow the path and when you see carpeting, you're there." Feeling a bit like Dorothy following the yellow brick road, I walked past stores and shoppers, strollers and even stages for indoor performances seeking the first museum devoted solely to stained glass windows in the United States. This free museum, which opened in February, 2002, is located in Chicago's major entertainment/shopping mall, Navy Pier, and visited by an astounding 3.5 million people a year.

The museum is home to everything from the windows of a Chicago synagogue to the lush beauty of Tiffany. Frank Lloyd Wright is represented, and the windows of a humble Chicago bungalow. And there's even the full set of the gorgeous Alphose Mucha Four Seasons windows.

The Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows is truly a museum without walls, notable not only for its unusual venue and price structure, but for the breadth of its collection and the circumstances under which is was created.

The museum represents the collection of Edward Byron (EB) Smith and his wife Maureen. Patrons of the arts, and devoted collectors, EB (as he is known to everyone) became interested in stained glass about 35 years ago. "This was a high quality art medium that few people besides EB was paying attention," notes Rolf Achilles, curator of the museum. "People were collecting paintings but few were collecting stained glass, especially Chicago stained glass."

The collection grew steadily, but EB was eager to display these luminous pieces so others could enjoy them. Finally, in 1994 the Smiths had the opportunity to mount an exhibit at O'Hare Airport. "The airport wanted art for the international terminal, something to fill those long empty corridors," explains Achilles. The passengers liked it. "It was something different and it made it easier for people to enjoy themselves walking through." In fact, these 45 pieces became so popular that they are still there today.

Photo of Tiffany window courtesy of Smith Museum EB still had many more windows, including some that he had given to the Chicago Historical Society that were languishing unseen. At the same time, serendipitously reconstruction had begun on the old Navy Pier with the help of the city of Chicago. Reminiscent of O'Hare, the huge mega-complex happened to have 900 feet of empty corridor that yearned for something light, and beautiful.

Some collectors might have hesitated to put delicate works of art in the middle of a mall, a mall that is open to the public 7 days a week. But both the location of the collection makes for a most unusual art museum-going experiences.

I strolled through the collection enjoying the breadth and the whimsey with which the windows were arranged, when suddenly I stopped almost in midstep. There in front of me was a whole passel of Louis Comfort Tiffany windows. In the middle of a shopping mall. I moved in for a better look bending close enough to leave a fog on these priceless windows. I looked around but no one seemed at all interested in my activities. Probably because these priceless pieces of fragile art are actually secure behind bullet-proof glass. "It's one the very few museums in the world you can stroll through eating a ice cream cone right in front of the art," says Achilles. "We don't keep people away."

Photo of Louis Sullivan window courtesy of Smith Museum They consciously decided to put high and low together, Louis Sullivan and next to the little bungalow windows. The arrangement had a message. "You too live in a house that has museum- worthy windows" for the people who live in bungalows.

Today the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows has 185 windows currently on display, and this is expected to grow up to 235 windows in the next few years. It has the largest collection of Tiffany windows on public display 29 windows. It's not surprising that the museum's reputation has grown. Many people come now just for the windows. Like me, they follow the yellow brick road through the windy city to the city of stained glass windows in a shopping mall on Navy Pier.

The museum's match those of Navy Pier, so it's open seven days a week. Tours are generally available on Thursdays at 2 PM, personally led by Rolf Achilles. For more information call (312) 595-5024.

© 2006