In 1819, Daniel Webster argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of his alma mater Dartmouth College. In closing, he famously said, “It’s a small college, yet there are those who love it.” So it is with The Cliff Dwellers. It’s a small arts club, yet there are those who love it. It’s a low-key, casual place, and filled with an easy going mix of convivial people who share an interest in the arts.
It also has food fit for an epicurean, and a 180-degree view of Millennium Park and Lake Michigan that’s to die for. The club was founded by turn of the century luminaries in 1907 and for most of the 20th Century made its home atop Orchestra Hall. In 1995, it was booted out of that home by a suddenly unfriendly Symphony landlord. Fortunately for the club, it found a new and better home immediately next door to the north. The club now occupies the 22nd-floor penthouse and terrace space of 200 South Michigan Avenue, directly across the street from The Art Institute of Chicago. With the art and social action afoot inside, and the ever-changing landscape of the lakefront outside, The Cliff Dwellers has proved to be an irresistible magnet for my camera over the years.
I first had occasion to visit The Cliff Dwellers in the 1980s. At the time, I worked at Encyclopaedia Britannica’s global headquarters, just two buildings south of the club at 310 South Michigan Avenue. I was invited to lunch at the club by Peter Norton, a member of The Cliff Dwellers, Britannica’s President, and my boss. Adjacent to our table was a threesome I took to be a young mother with her daughter and father. At one point during lunch, the mother suddenly pushed her chair back from their table, stood up, and burst into a flawless soprano a cappella rendition of Amazing Grace. Her stunning professional voice immediately drew the attention of everyone in the room. All stopped eating, transfixed until she finished her private family serenade, sat down, and resumed her meal. Everyone else also resumed their lunch, as if nothing unusual had just occurred. But I knew something unusual had occurred. I was in an unusual place. I was at The Cliff Dwellers.