How the MCA Got the New Site

1980s Building Community Move

Helyn Goldenberg dreams big and wheels and deals to secure the Armory site for the museum's new building.

So, I am leaving the museum, because Magdalena Abakanowicz’s got these gigantic things called Abakans, and they won’t fit in our museum. Our ceiling is too low. So, I’m walking down Michigan Avenue with Larry Booth—great architect and our trustee—and complaining bitterly, “Damn it, they won’t fit in the building. We need a new building.” So, we did two things. First thing we did was we called—maybe not the first, but we called the Cultural Center, and we had the first collaboration of an exhibition of any two institutions in the city. And we put the Abakans there, and we put the rest of the art in the MCA. And I said to Larry, “This is terrible. We’ve got to get a new building. We have to do something.” And he finally said to me, “Helyn, would you stop it? What do you want, the Armory?” Because we were walking right past the Armory. I said, “That’s what I want. Yeah, that’s what we should have. We should have the Armory site. It’s gonna be the best site ever left in the city of Chicago for this museum.”

Anyway, six or eight years later, we finally got it—and that’s a book, not a story. But it finally happened after we moved the National Guard out of the Armory so we could get into this site. They only wanted [a] lakefront site. They didn’t want to go on the West Side. We had buildings for them. So, Dorie Sternberg’s father—our great trustee and my dear friend Dorie, she calls me up and she says, “You know, my dad wants to talk to you because Donnelly is giving away some buildings near the Donnelly Press. I told him you’d have no interest in it whatsoever.”

So, I said, “Let’s have lunch.” So, we have lunch, and I’m gonna tell you this just quickly. We ended up getting that building, and that’s the reason we could get the National Guard out of this armory, because it was near the lake. So, they went over there for a while, and we were able to get the site. And that is a distillation of many trips to Springfield and then my successors finishing it off and what have you. But here we are.

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