Hellenism basically means all things Greek. The word came into use way back in 1609 to represent all subjects related to Greece–classical ideals and art, civic responsibility, the pursuit of knowledge, etc. I basically learned this on the National Hellenic Museum’s website last night. While planning to write about it today, I got to wondering why NHM’s creators didn’t call it the National Greek Museum. Now I know why.
Among Chicago attractions devoted to this immigrant city’s rich cultural heritage, the Hellenic is certainly one of the more impressive, a definite 5 Compass experience. It’s 4th floor rooftop terrace affords a great view of the Willis Tower, formerly known as The Sears Tower. This museum’s new 40,000 feet venue, opened only since 2011, was beautifully designed to showcase its subject, the telling of the story of Greek immigration to America. About its only disadvantage is that it’s extremely hard to park in the Greektown neighborhood just west of The Loop. Many of the Greek restaurants in the area offer free valet parking.
Once inside the National Hellenic Museum, however, I forgot about the hassle and was quickly immersed in Greek culture. Ruth and I were lucky to encounter The Hellenic Museum’s President, Connie Mourtoupalas, who showed us around. She found me on the 3rd floor looking at a permanent exhibit, The Story of Greek Independence, and offered to show us some of the Museum’s treasures, including personal items she donated. Leo Stefanos, a Greek immigrant, invented the Dove Bar; and his Dove Candy chocolate molds and marble counter are part of the Hellenic’s collection.
The National Hellenic Museum is the only national institution telling the singular story of Greeks in America. After 400 years of Ottoman rule, a Greek war commenced in 1821. It took them 12 years to gain independence. Daniel Webster and Henry Clay got involved. Greek men began showing up in Chicago in the 1840s. They came to escape poverty and avoid being drafted into the Turkish Army. Most planned to return to Greece after they had made some money. Most became merchants. Greeks were among the last of the immigrant groups to arrive in America in great numbers. From the late 19th century until the mid 1920s, however, 750,000 Greeks flooded in. By 1927 they ran more than 10,000 stores in Chicago, 500 in The Loop alone. However, 600,000 Greek immigrants returned to Greece before World War II.
Many stayed. The U.S. community with the highest percentage of Greek-American residents is Tarpon Springs, Florida. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson spend part of each year on the Greek island of Antiparos. Rita’s mother was Greek and her father was a Bulgarian Muslim born in Thrace, a Greek province. If you don’t think that movies made in Greece not starring Tom Hanks have been successful in America, Mama Mia!
The Hellenic Museum is involved in 2 very interesting shows this year. Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn (his real name was Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca) played Zorba The Greek. It was his most famous role and he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance. In addition to being a fine actor, Quinn was also a respected sculptor, and an exhibit of his work called “Transcending Boundaries” will be on display on its first level next month. Then from November 26, 2015 to April 17, 2016, The National Hellenic Museum is co-hosting “The Greeks from Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” with the Field Museum.