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Visiting the Poetry Foundation in Chicago

My traveling buddy, Peggy, and I were elevated to great excitement when we learned late last summer that the Chicago Architectural Foundation planned a tour for members of the newly opened Poetry Foundation office in River North in Chicago.

We had both read about what sounded like a well designed and imaginative building devoted to the study and creation of poetry. The reviews for the $20 million dollar structure had been good and we both wanted to experience it first hand.

FYI:  Peggy is a poet and an artist. If you’d like to read a sample of her work, click here for her poems about Maine boatyards.  You won’t be disappointed.

And we were not disappointed with the building situated in an active urban setting.


The boxy building at first almost appears like a parking structure,  but it is not.  It is slow to reveal itself.  What appears to be  an entrance is not.  Instead, in the Frank Lloyd Wright tradition of hiding entrances, this one is a small one to the right of what appears to be the opening.

One walks down a narrow passageway and into an interior garden before the real entrance become apparent.

Peggy says, “For a space designed to feature poetry, it seems appropriate to walk down a long path, enter a garden and then the front door.  It puts visitors  in a meditative mood.”

It sure slowed me down.   We had arrived a bit late for the tour (having dawdled over dinner at the Girl and a Goat) so I was feeling a little rushed and frazzled.  This building took care of that, smoothing out the wrinkles in my mind.

The garden is screened with glass and zinc mesh, stunning in its appearance.  It is a mix of trees, cement shapes and moss.

We loved the two main spaces on the first floor.  A serene two story library soars with 35,000 books, punctuated with a long table down the center.  Open to the entire building, it is inviting and welcoming.

 The other notable first floor space is the performance room, designed for readings.  It looks out on the interior garden and views of the bustling city but carefully designed so none of those noises can get in. It’s almost like a chapel.  Where else in a city can you go and be that quiet?

Made me feel like I need to put slippers  at the door like you do in Japan.


The Chicago based architect, John Ronan, thought through every detail so that readings can be  perfect. For example, the chairs were chosen that have no seams, making it less likely that they will squeak.  Now, that’s attention to detail.

I loved the stairwell to the upper floor, loft like with pristine white offices.  It entices the visitor up, around a bamboo, planted under a skylight that floods the area with natural light.  Clearly this is a zen reference that speaks to the contemplative aspects of poetry.

The expansive landing in the middle of the steel and glass staircase gives one a view throughout the building, the plaza, the zinc screen and the city outside.

The Architectural critic for the Chicago Tribune called the building, “mysterious, engaging, richly layered and revealing.”  I agree.  It’s all of those things.

Another critic commented that it is a “quiet box, bereft of the sort of wow-inducing undulations that have made Jeanne Gang’s Aqua tower such a crowd pleaser.”

It is much more of an oasis in a crowded busy city.



Post Author
Susan J. Smith
Susan's career includes writing for newspapers, lots of community work and a wonderful family life. Now she is enjoying traveling, photography and writing for DesignDestinations and Grand Rapids Magazine. She welcomes you on her journey and appreciates your comments.


  1. posted by
    Oct 25, 2011 Reply

    In this age of Kindles and Nooks etc, how lovely to see a new building that actually adds a two story library with with hardcover books!

    • posted by
      Oct 26, 2011 Reply

      Good point! 

  2. posted by
    Checking out the Fulton Market Street area in Chicago | DesignDestinations
    Oct 26, 2011 Reply

    […] finally got there in September when a friend and I went to Chicago to check out the Poetry Foundation.  We had a little time and the day was gorgeous so off we […]

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