The Cliff Dwellers club, shown in 2007, features a portrait of founder and novelist Hamlin Garland. The Chicago club is hosting “A Kiss Crosses the City,” a “salon” with writer and poet Stuart Dybek and artist Mary Livoni on Oct. 20. (Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune)
There are a number of saloons in the sky that offer spectacular views of various parts of our city. There is the venerable Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the Hancock Building with views of the entire city and lake. There is the relatively new J. Parker on the roof of the Lincoln Hotel where some will tell that when the wind blows favorably you can hear noises from the animals at Lincoln Park Zoo. There is the even newer LH Rooftop at the London House Hotel and Cindy’s, on top of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel.
These places and other boozy aeries are all open to the public. Got the money? Have a drink.
One of the greatest views is to be found at the private Cliff Dwellers club, which has long opened its doors to the public for special events, allowing people to not only partake of libations and food and views but also great conversations.
There is one coming up Oct 20. It is being called a "salon" and will feature the justifiably acclaimed writer and poet Stuart Dybek and an artist named Mary Livoni, who has created a series of broadsides (or large illustrative posters) based on Dybek’s work.
"They are really amazing photo and photo collages paired with lines from some of Stuart’s stories," says Don Evans, who will be guiding a conversation between the two artists.
Evans has been involved with various literary events at Cliff Dwellers for some years and there are few more active boosters of the city’s literary scene.
He is a teacher, novelist ("Good Money After Bad") and the editor of the anthology "Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting Till Next Year." He also found time to found the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame and has nurtured it tirelessly. The first class of inductees in 2010 included Gwendolyn Brooks, Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Lorraine Hansberry and Saul Bellow, and the HOF has grown to now include a couple of dozen of Chicago’s finest writers (www.chicagoliteraryhof.org).
And for the past three years he has been organizing and hosting at the Cliff Dwellers something called the Great Chicago Books Club. "It’s been a collaborative effort, one born of the club’s desire to give its members and the public the chance to participate," says Evans.
The Cliff Dwellers has a long history of such efforts. It was founded in 1907 as the Attic Club by Hamlin Garland, a socially prominent and well-connected novelist. His idea was for a place that would be a sort of clubhouse in which the city’s artistic community could mix with businessmen with a taste for the arts.
It changed its name two years later, inspired by "The Cliff-Dwellers," a novel by Henry B. Fuller, a pal of Garland’s, and moved into a space atop what was then Orchestra Hall (now Symphony Center) at 220 S. Michigan Ave.
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Inside its walls gathered many of the city’s best known artists in all fields. A small sampling: George Ade, Carl Sandburg, James Whitcomb Riley, Daniel Burnham and Roger Ebert. Honorary memberships have been awarded to novelist Scott Turow, sculptor Richard Hunt, the city cultural historian Tim Samuelson and the aforementioned Dybek.
Garland once wrote a poem that captures the club’s philosophy:
Down in the city’s deeps we meet in savage fashion,
And play as best we may the selfish, sordid game,
But after hours and up in the Cliff Dwellers:
Man greets his fellow man, and only then remembers,
Art’s magic bond of light, and beauty’s bloodless stain.
The club has long given grants to artists through its arts foundation and hosted regular events, whether lectures, musical programs or conversations.
There are stories aplenty in its past and one of my favorites, buried by the decades, is that in 1927, some members became irritated with the club’s obeying Prohibition laws and left to found what for a time was among the city’s liveliest private clubs, the aptly named Tavern Club.
The Cliff Dwellers club admitted women in 1984 and in 1997 it relocated to its current home, the top floor in the Borg-Warner Building at 200 S. Michigan Ave. It’s a great space with, as I’ve noted, fine views across Grant Park to the lake and points north and south.
If you ever go — reservations for the Oct. 20 event "A Kiss Crosses the City" can be made on the Hall of Fame website — you will find a comfortable and unpretentious setting. Good drinks and good food and history all around. There is a huge oil portrait of Garland on the walls, the head of an Asian water buffalo shot by member/mayor Carter Harrison II, books and art and more books.
"There is so much history here," says Evans, who has been made an honorary member. (I am not a member.) "And it’s an extremely comfortable place. And, yes, the views."
A favorite item in the club and one given a place of honor is the desk on which member Louis Sullivan, the esteemed architect, wrote his memoirs. He was down and out and broke and drunk at the time but this is some of what he wrote: "The Lake is there, awaiting, in all its glory; and the sky is there above, waiting, in its eternal beauty; and the Prairie, the ever-fertile Prairie is awaiting,"
Try to remember that the next time you’re sitting on some lofty city perch.
And remember too that when Sullivan died in 1924 it was Cliff Dwellers members who donated the money for his burial and memorial at Graceland Cemetery.
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