LOOP — Great moments of Chicago history, national importance and personal embarrassment all have ties to the Union League Club.
Famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham had meetings with his contemporaries to plan the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 there.
It's where U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin first told Barack Obama that he had to run for president, and Obama, then a junior U.S. senator, said, "Let me talk it over with Michelle."
And in 2008, a certain reporter dressed in denim — the "devil's fabric" banned by club members — was forced to trade his jeans for loaner "fat lady pants" while attending a journalism awards banquet there.
Now Union League Club members have proudly restored priceless artifacts that aim to preserve at least one of those historic moments — and I'm not talking about bronzing the chair Obama sat in when Durbin first pushed him to run for president, or the lady pants they made me wear.
Four original platinum photos taken by the official Chicago World's Fair photographer, Charles Dudley Arnold, have been restored and put on display in the club's newly renovated Rendezvous parlor room.
Another 31 photos of the fair in the club's collection will be restored this year.
"These photos are priceless for a variety of reasons," club art curator Elizabeth Whiting said. "First, they are extremely rare. And many Union League Club members, including Daniel Burnham, a member of the club who designed the thing, were integral to the exposition. These are not just photographs of the greatest World's Fair. They're part of the club's history."
Each photo, yellowed with age, was soaked in water, treated with chemicals, "bleached" by the sun and matted and framed to protect it.
Arnold's landscape portraits — taken on cameras the size of TVs that captured negative images on mammoth glass plates and printed on paper coated in platinum — offer an amazing depth of field and capture extraordinary details in perfect focus.
"Look at that guy in the corner," Whiting said, pointing to the Arnold portrait of the Horticulture Building in the fair's "White City."
"He is most assuredly from the human zoos they had going on in the Midway Plaisance taking a break from whatever show he's got going on. … If you had a magnifying glass, you can read the signs. The detail is amazing."
Take a close look, and you can see the feathers on white swans swimming in a lagoon, thin netting wrapped around the shore, and even the expression on a man's face standing what appears to be a football field away.
Arnold's photographs of the fair — also known as the World's Columbian Exposition — aren't significant only for their photographic excellence and age, Whiting said.
What also makes them special is a bit of World's Fair trivia — Arnold, who was hired by Burnham, had cut a lucrative exclusivity deal that could only happen in Chicago.
"If you were a photographer at the fair, you had to buy a license, and as a tourist you couldn't just snap a bunch of pictures. There were only designated views you were allowed to photograph because Charles Dudley Arnold, who was the official photographer of the fair, had a racket going," Whiting said.
"If you wanted to, you could buy an 8-by-10 of all the beautiful views for 30 cents, which in 1893 was a lot of money. He also controlled all the images. So magazines and newspapers — everybody — had to go through him, had to buy through him, the views of the fair. It was totally the Chicago Way."
At the Union League Club, the restored 16-by-20s — portraits of the fair's Women's Building, Horticulture Building, U.S. Building and Viking Ship replica floating in a lagoon — hang on both sides of a big-screen TV in a room once designated for poker-playing and cigar-smoking next to a billiards room.
On Tuesday, club members discussed business, enjoyed a late lunch and quietly read the papers without paying much attention to black-and-white gems hanging in the Rendezvous Room.
But who can blame them, really? The Union League Club has one of the largest privately held art collections in the country that includes Claude Monet's priceless painting "Trees in Blossom," which the club bought for $500 in 1895.
And all that artwork isn't just for fancy folks who can afford to join the Union League Club to look at.
On the first Monday of every month, Whiting leads an hourlong tour of the club's expansive art collection, which now includes more than 800 works.
The tour is free, but you can't just show up — the Union League Club is the kind of place that requires a reservation.
But take it from a guy who knows, if you take the tour, don't wear the "devil's fabric" — unless, that is, you've got an affinity for walking around in loaner club pants with extra room in the hips.
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