107. Poetry Foundation Builds a Home in Chicago

Poetry Foundation building to be one of nation’s leading poetry centers, new Chicago cultural destination, and permanent home for Poetry magazine

CHICAGO — The Poetry Foundation announced today that it has begun construction of a new home (poetryfoundation.org/building) that will be Chicago’s first building dedicated solely to the art form of poetry and the first permanent venue for Poetry magazine in its nearly 100-year history in the city.

The new building, in the city’s River North neighborhood, fulfills a century-old vision of Poetry magazine founder Harriet Monroe. Writing her first editorial in 1912, Monroe imagined that ultimately the magazine would help poets pursue their art, increase public interest in poetry, and raise poetry’s profile in society.

The Foundation unveiled details about the new building and its future programming during a presentation at the Arts Club of Chicago on Wednesday.

The new building’s primary purpose is to help the Foundation carry out its mission of discovering and celebrating the best poetry and putting it before the largest possible audience. The ground floor of the two-story building will be devoted to public use, including a multipurpose performance space expected to be one of the leading venues for the spoken word, a public garden, a 35,000-volume non-circulating collection that is currently in storage, and an exhibition gallery.

“This new home will have a dramatic, positive impact on our mission. We will be able to invite new audiences into the world of poetry through our public spaces, expanded programming, and new partnerships,” said Poetry Foundation President John Barr during the announcement event. “It will offer to poetry lovers a destination, a physical engagement with the art form.”

The Foundation’s program staff, including the employees of Poetry magazine, the online, media, youth, and events initiatives, and the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, will be relocated from their current offices on Michigan Avenue to the second floor of the new building. In addition to housing current activities and the new library program, the Foundation’s new space will allow it to increase the number of public events it sponsors within its existing programs. Additional functions envisioned for the space include staged events combining poetry and the visual or performing arts; gallery exhibits from the Poetry archives; discussion groups with teachers and students; collaborations with other literary organizations; and audio and video archiving of on-site events.

“Since its founding by Harriet Monroe in 1912, Poetry magazine has been a proud resident of the city of Chicago. In all these years, however, we have never had a place we could truly call our own,” said Donald Marshall, chair of the Poetry Foundation’s board of trustees. “We envision this building as a permanent and enduring place where the Foundation, the magazine, and poetry itself can be a visible and vigorous presence in the local and national cultural world.”

Barr noted that the new building solidifies the organization’s relationship with Chicago and adds to the city’s reputation as a leading center of literary activity.

“The project reinforces the Poetry Foundation’s long-term commitment to the city of Chicago and is a testament to Chicago’s historic and ongoing role in the national literary culture,” said Barr. “We intend for this to be a new cultural destination in our city and to shine a national spotlight on the works of our great poets and on Chicago as the permanent home of one of the oldest and most important literary magazines in the English-speaking world.”

Scheduled to open in June 2011, the Poetry Foundation’s new home will be one of only a few public spaces in the nation built exclusively for the advancement of poetry.

“This building is a significant addition to the poetry landscape of the entire country,” said Barr. “To the east of us, Poets House has opened a beautiful new home in Manhattan. To the west, the University of Arizona houses their major poetry collection in a dedicated poetry center.”

The 22,000-square-foot building being constructed at the intersection of Dearborn and Superior streets was designed by the Chicago firm John Ronan Architects. Visitors will enter the building by walking through a garden that is conceived of as an urban sanctuary, a space that, in the words of the architect, “mediates between the street and the building, blurring the hard distinctions between public and private.”

Ronan said the design of the building and the strategic use of materials are intended to mirror the way in which people read poetry. “Just as good poetry doesn’t always divulge all of its meanings on first reading, the new building will engage the public’s curiosity and unfold in stages,” said Ronan, who is widely recognized as a leader among the younger generation of Chicago architects.

The project is intended to be environmentally sustainable and will comply with the Silver Level of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Rating System®. The building design integrates a number of sustainable design strategies and energy-efficient systems. An area planted with trees and open to the public makes up over 20 percent of the site. Other features include high-efficiency glazing systems, automated lighting controls, high-efficiency plumbing fixtures, a partial green roof, and finishing materials that are locally sourced and/or produced from renewable or recycled sources.

The total projected cost for the building, including land acquisition, is $21.5 million. Marshall said that in addition to other benefits associated with the “home for poetry,” the Foundation’s board sees constructing and owning a space designed specifically for poetry as a wise use of the organization’s assets.

Funding for Poetry Foundation programming has been made possible through a generous bequest from Indianapolis pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly.

Lilly, who died in December at age 94, began her long association with Poetry magazine by submitting poems. Although they were not published, she apparently appreciated the magazine’s concern for fledgling writers. In 1986 she began endowing a $100,000 annual prize to poets in recognition of lifetime achievement. In 1989 she created Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships of $15,000 each, awarded annually by the Poetry Foundation to undergraduate or graduate students selected through a national competition. In 2008 the Foundation increased the number of Lilly Fellowships awarded each year from two to five.

“The Foundation is deeply grateful to Ruth Lilly for her profound generosity to this organization and to the overall advancement of poetry in our society,” said Barr. “This building will stand as a living memorial to her and help spread her appreciation of poetry and its benefits to many others.”

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