New Library Graces Chicago Landscape
In a city proud of its architecture, a public building makes its mark
CHICAGO'S new Harold Washington Library Center, the largest open-stack library in the world, is an attractive and practical reminder that truly great public building is still possible.Skip to next paragraph
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Architecture in this city is a visible representation of civic pride. And everyone here has an opinion.
"This has been the largest library-building program by any city in the history of the United States," says John Duff, library commissioner for the city of Chicago.
Last October's opening of the central library, which was designed by Chicago architect Thomas Beeby, capped a broad program of building and expansion of the city's library system. In addition to the $175 million building, 30 of its 80 branches have been reconstructed at an additional cost of $90 million.
In a city of architectural flourishes, including H. H. Richardson's Marshall Field Wholesale Store (1885-'87), Adler and Sullivan's Auditorium Building, and Mies van der Rohe's Federal Center, creating a public monument that can stand out is not easy.
In Inland Architect magazine, Philip Bess writes that "the new library is a superior, though not unflawed, building.... Its true significance is to be found in its mostly successful attempt to reinvigorate a tradition of civic building and ornamental craft largely ignored and forgotten for most of the past century."
"Chicago has always been willing to consider these big projects," says Mr. Duff. "The slogan that is most often used here is Daniel Burnham's statement, 'Make no little plans.' "
Burnham and Edward Bennett, Chicago's visionary urban planners, devised a master plan in 1909 for the reorganization and rebuilding of the city after its great fire. Part of the plan indicated that a significant public building should occupy the central library's present location. Located on State Street, between Van Buren Street and Congress Parkway, the library is intended by the city and its designers to anchor and revitalize the south Loop.
Chicago's book collection has followed an awkward path to its present home. Housed first in a converted water tank (1873), the collection endured an 11-year sojourn in City Hall before coming to rest in a lavish new beaux-arts style building on Michigan Avenue in 1897. By 1922, however, librarian Carl Roden warned that the burgeoning collection was bursting its space.
"There have been a lot of false starts since then," Duff says, understating the almost 70 years of civic bickering.
While everyone agreed that Chicago desperately needed a library, finding funding for big projects always requires skillful political hands. Commissioner Duff left nothing to the whim of the City Council.
He worked hard to get support from members of the City Council, Duff says. "Almost every alderman has a branch [library] in their ward, some have two or three." Branches in many wards were upgraded, including the construction of altogether new libraries, upgrading storefronts to full-service libraries, and complete renovations of some of the older, Carnegie-style buildings.
As a result of the careful preparation, "when we went before the city council to get the $175 million," Duff says, "they took the roll call, and the vote was something like 44 [in favor] to 4 [opposed]."
The old central library on Michigan Avenue, which had about one-sixth the usable space the new one does, generally attracted 3,000 to 4,000 patrons a day, according to Carla Hayden, deputy library commissioner and head librarian. The new library is attracting more than twice that many a day, she says.