“Tim Samuelson, the city’s first and only cultural historian, quietly retired this week, leaving a deep and enduring contribution to the city’s cultural landscape.
“Samuelson, 69, worked for the city since 2002. Lois Weisberg, the former commissioner of cultural affairs, got him to leave the Chicago History Museum with the promise that he would be allowed to do “whatever you do” as the city’s cultural historian.
For almost two decades, Samuelson did exactly that, assisting fellow historians, reporters, businesses, architects and foreign delegations as a combination spokesman, consultant, historian and storyteller. He often showed them exhibits, many of which he acquired on his own, and enthralled them with his enthusiastic storytelling, often while taking visitors outside on his own walking tours.
Back inside his one-man office on the fifth floor office in the Cultural Center, visitors often felt like they were inside a mini Chicago history museum, with artifacts like a pair of handcuffs that belonged to famous G-man Eliot Ness, ancient floor arrows decommissioned from the Marquette Building, a full-size player piano with original song scrolls, a microphone used on the WLS-AM’s ‘National Barn Dance’ show, and the doorknob of Al Capone’s office in his Lexington Hotel Headquarters.
“Samuelson has been credited with helping save many buildings that would have been lost otherwise, including the old Chess Records headquarters and several spots in Bronzeville vital to Jazz and Black history.
“Along the way, Samuelson was repeatedly recognized for his work, most notably in 2015 when nonprofit preservation group Landmarks Illinois designated Samuelson himself a ‘Legendary Landmark.’
“Mayor Lori Lightfoot was effusive late Tuesday in her praise of Samuelson in a statement: ‘Over his nearly two decades as Chicago’s official cultural historian, Tim Samuelson has been a walking encyclopedia of Chicago history and an invaluable resource to both our residents and visitors alike — not to mention three mayors.’
“Chicago historian Ellen Skerrett, who is writing a history of St. Ignatius College Prep, said Samuelson’s emphasis on buildings that are important to people rather than on just their architecture resonates with her. ‘His ability to really engage with people, he brings history to life. He’s done so much good for the city,” Skerrett said.’
“While Samuelson has retired from his cultural historian post, he won’t be severing all ties, according to those who work with him. He is expected to be named to an emeritus position, staying on to help consult on the restoration of GAR Hall and Rotunda, which is being facilitated by a recent $15 million donation, according to a Department of Cultural Affairs employee who didn’t want to be named because the plan has not been formally announced.
“The center is also working on a permanent exhibit called ‘Inside Tim Samuelson’s Brain’ that will preserve Samuelson’s massive collection of Chicago’s architecture artifacts and pictorial history. The plan is to digitize his collection, put everything online and have a permanent home inside the cultural center.” (Chiarito, Chicago Sun-Times, 12/1/20)
Preservation Chicago wishes Tim Samuelson all the very best in his future endeavors. We’re sure they will be as interesting, dynamic and amazing as all of his projects of the past. But wait, there’s more!
On behalf of the Board and staff of Preservation Chicago and one former colleague from the architectural firm of John Vinci/Vinci-Hamp Architects, Ward Miller, we wish you many, many wonderful years ahead!
Tim Samuelson, the city’s first and only cultural historian, retires; ‘His ability to really engage with people, he brings history to life. He’s done so much good for the city,’ said one fellow historian, Bob Chiarito, Chicago Sun-Times, 12/1/20