The Arts: A Museum of Great Reflection
The new Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies is a glittering addition to a city famous for its architectural and cultural landmarks.
In Chicago, a city known for its grand architecture, on a fashionable avenue lined with steel and stone towers, a glittering, new glass building has emerged—a modern-day monument that captures and symbolizes light.
It is the new home of the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, a $55-million, 10-story building that combines museum, college and library. It opened last November on Michigan Avenue, prime real estate with stunning views of two of Chicago’s treasures, Grant Park and Lake Michigan.
Four years in the making, the new Spertus home (312-322-1700; www.spertus.edu) has a dramatic façade—The Chicago Tribunedubbed it “blades of glass”—that offers little hint of what’s inside. Only a closer inspection of the entrance reveals the institute’s logo, a flame accompanied by the biblical phrase, “yehi or,” which means “let there be light.”
“People ask me where are the Jewish stars, where’s the traditional iconography,” says Howard Sulkin, Spertus’s president. “We wanted this to be a Jewish building but a Jewish building of the 21st century. And you can’t have a 21st-century building without lots of glass and abstraction.”
The transparent frontage, though, is more than an ultramodern look. “We wanted to convey light,” explains Sulkin. “Light not only means sunlight, but, in Jewish life, learning and wisdom. That’s what we’re communicating.”
And light there is, whether it’s the shimmering, 161-foot-high glass exterior wall that reflects the clouds, the sky and trees, the sweeping lobby or the atrium that allows visitors to gaze down from the ninth-floor collection area and see the library one floor below.
The building, designed by Krueck + Sexton Architects of Chicago, has a façade made of 726 individual pieces of glass formed in 556 different shapes. The pieces are faceted, jutting out as much as 4 feet, and resemble the sharp edge of gems fitted together like a three-dimensional puzzle.
It took some time to settle on this design, notes Ronald Krueck, one of the partners in the architectural firm. “Very early on we didn’t sit down and draw an all-glass building,” he says. “We had four or five initial designs that had different amounts of stone and metal involved.” As the architects consulted with Spertus and questions were raised about why something or other was needed, slowly other materials were pushed aside.
What emerged is a cultural center about 50-percent larger than its former home with more exhibition space, a 400-seat theater, a kosher café, a gift shop and book store as well as the Spertus College and Asher Library. An interactive Children’s Center will open this spring.
Today’s Spertus is also a striking contrast to its more traditional brick-and-mortar surroundings. “A glass building clearly has a different expression than a stone building,” Krueck says. “[Spertus] wanted a building…that would ask people to ‘come study with us.’ It really should be reaching out in a way.”
Though security is an obvious concern in the post-9/11 world, according to Rhoda Rosen, museum director, Spertus was intent on having an inviting, open atmosphere.
“It was very important for us not to lock down or become a fortress,” she says. However, the institute does have metal detectors.
As spertus planned for its new home, it considered both its place in Chicago’s world-famous skyline and its prestigious neighbors. The city has an international reputation as a laboratory for such masters as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. Some of their works are a short walk away.
“We wanted to do something to help stimulate, or re-stimulate, the great school of architecture,” Sulkin says.
Spertus was also conscious it was part of the Historic Michigan Boulevard District. It is close to Chicago’s lakefront and many of the metropolis’s premier cultural landmarks such as The Art Institute, The Field Museum, Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium. Visitors to the new institute can look out and—depending on where they are standing—see Millennium Park; Navy Pier; The John Hancock Center; and Soldier Field stadium, home of the Chicago Bears.
Sulkin constantly reminded the architects of the importance of that view. “We have this magnificent lake and this magnificent park that we’re looking at all the time,” he says. “There has to be an interaction between the Garden of Eden [Grant Park] and the garden of learning.”
Krueck remembers those conversations. Every time he visited Sulkin, the Spertus president would, in fact, point toward the park and say, “‘That’s Eden,’” the architect recalls. “It was obvious to us that those views were important to him conceptually, visually and emotionally.
”Spertus decided to move several years ago because it needed more room and modern technology to preserve its artifacts and rare collection of more than 15,000 pieces, including 19th- and 20th-century art, Judaica and materials from European, Sefardic and Oriental Jewish culture. Its old headquarters was in a nearly 100-year-old renovated office building that was once IBM headquarters.
After the decision was made to build, more than 40 locations were considered before a vacant lot was chosen at 610 S. Michigan Avenue. As it turned out, it was next door to the original Spertus.
The institute commissioned a video work by artist Lincoln Schatz called Across Time, located on the second floor near the café, that provides a seven-year portrait of Spertus. Two cameras—one in the lobby of the old building, the other on the roof—recorded visitors and the construction of the edifice. Images are still being collected of visitors at the new building.
Spertus’s decision to stay downtown kept the institute in the thick of Chicago’s cultural scene. “It became important for us to remain in the area because we wanted to integrate in the civic fabric of the city,” Rosen says.
“Altogether, the institute as a whole understands that Jewish life is varied and diverse and not homogeneous,” she adds. “We offer different portals and different delivery systems to access the Jewish experience.”
And it does that in a variety of bold ways.
One of the more unconventional pieces on display is Consider, a site-specific video installation and Holocaust memorial set in a corner of the ninth floor. Created by noted Indian artist Ranbir Kaleka and commissioned by Spertus, it juxtaposes everyday life with wartime horrors. The piece shows an Indian family at home including an adolescent daughter whose long hair is tenderly braided by her mother. The soundtrack features oral testimony describing how the Nazis turned human hair from concentration camp prisoners into a commodity. The piece is designed to speak to the way in which hair can be a nurturing symbol as well as one of brutal degradation.
Just as innovative is the Depot, Spertus’s permanent exhibit area -and, along with the Asher Library and Spertus College, one of the three main divisions of the institute.
About 1,500 pieces are displayed in the Depot, a C-shaped floor-to-ceiling, glass-enclosed area on the ninth floor. The items include everything from Torah covers, prayer books and synagogue lamps to Yiddish theater memorabilia.
One piece on loan is the Brooke Tas (named after the owners), a Torah shield, or breastplate, made in 1661 in Nuremberg, Germany, the work of a well-known silversmith named Thomas Rieger. Spertus officials believe this is the only piece of Judaica stolen during World War II that was returned to an American family.
The Depot is both a display area and open storage. Visitors can choose one of a dozen iPod tours organized around themes, such as Jews at the crossroads or holidays, to hear about parts of the collection.
The 10th floor is dedicated to changing exhibitions; the first, “The New Authentics: Artists of the Post-Jewish Generation,” is on view though April 13. The exhibit is an eclectic collection of photographs, paintings, videos, sculptures and other works by 16 contemporary artists such as Cheselyn Amato and Shoshana Dentz. Starting in May, “Imaginary Coordinates” will explore the questions of identity and borders and the disparity between maps and real-life experiences. The show will feature pieces from contemporary Israeli and Palestinian-born female artists
The Asher Library houses more than 110,000 Jewish-interest fiction and nonfiction books as well as periodicals, music and films and more than 1,500 rare books dating to the late 15th century. The library also has the Muriel Yale Collection of Rare & Antique Maps of the Holy Land and the Ottoman Empire, the Targ Center for Jewish Music and the Chicago Jewish Archives.
Among the library holdings is an early-16th-century second edition of the first-ever printing of the Hebrew Bible, Mikraot Gedolot, printed by Daniel Bomberg in Venice. There is also a tractateYebamot, which deals with the laws of levirate marriage, from the premier edition of the first complete set of the Talmud ever printed, also by Bomberg, and more than 100 Yemenite manuscripts spanning the 16th to the 20th centuries.
Spertus College, which has an annual enrollment of about 300 students, offers master’s and doctoral degrees in Jewish studies. Some students are locals; others participate in distance learning from 36 states and 9 countries, from Korea and Japan to Israel. The college also offers a master’s degree in nonprofit management.
Adding a bit of whimsy to the learned surroundings is the decor of the Spertus Café, managed by Wolfgang Puck Catering, and the gift and book stores.
All celebrate, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the memorable sayings of famous Jewish people. The outside of the library features, among others, the words of philosopher Baruch Spinoza and comic Groucho Marx; on the gift shop walls, there are quotes from scientist Albert Einstein and comedian Henny Youngman.
“Life is not only serious learning,” Sulkin says.
As a modern building, Spertus’s headquarters is energy efficient with special glass coating for solar controls, a terrace and a 6,659-square-foot roof that is seeded with sedum, a type of plant that absorbs air pollution and manages storm water.
Spertus has come a long way since it was founded in 1924 as the College of Jewish Studies, the first American Jewish teacher-training school established west of Philadelphia.
From the 1940s to the 1960s, it was the main institution in the Midwest for training Jewish teachers. The Spertus Museum opened in 1968 when entrepreneur and philanthropist Maurice Spertus donated his vast collection of Jewish ceremonial objects to the school.
Two years later, the College of Jewish Studies, recognizing the support of the families of Spertus and his brother, Herman, changed its name to the Spertus College of Judaica. A few years later, Norman and Helen Asher endowed a library.
Today’s building is a dramatic contrast to the former headquarters, a bland, stone building with small windows that often created a feeling of isolation. Sulkin says it was the kind of place where there might be hundreds of people inside but it could still seem empty.
“You couldn’t see anything else,” he notes. “Everything was closed.”
Spertus was determined to change that. “We wanted to give people access visually to what is going on in the building,” Sulkin explains. “We wanted people to see this very complex organization.”
And that has helped foster a spirit of unity among staff in all areas, says Ellen LeVee, assistant dean of Jewish studies at Spertus College.
“We’re much more connected to each other, and we get involved with each other,” she says. “When problems arise, it’s not just our departments dealing with it. We can help each other out.”
The new Spertus has proven to be popular. In its first month in the new building, it welcomed more than 12,000 visitors, about triple the number during a typical December.
It is not just visitors who find the new home appealing.
When LeVee goes to work each morning, she walks west from the lake and watches the shimmering glass reflecting different colors as the sun rises.
“It almost takes my breath away,” she says. “It’s like it’s reflecting the heavens. It’s a beautiful building.”
Sharon Cohen is a freelance writer living in Chicago.