New Library Graces Chicago Landscape

In a city proud of its architecture, a public building makes its mark

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

WHEN a visitor walks into the lobby for the first time, initial expectations may be dashed. Instead of a grand entryway or substantial public space, the stifling room has the charm of a dull, gray office building. The rationale may be that memorials to the late Mayor Harold Washington are located here, but it is a disappointing beginning nonetheless.

Then, as one whooshes upward on the nearest escalator, things rapidly improve. The atmosphere lightens, attentive volunteers and security guards point the way, and a luminous museum-quality polish leaps from the marble.

Floors three through eight have a marvelous array of reading and work environments, as well as the stacks that are ripe for exploration. Instead of a huge reading room (banished from the design program by library staff), visitors have many venues from which to choose. Cozy individual carrels alternate with soaring two-story high, sunlight-drenched reading rooms.

Critics initially were concerned that homeless people would be drawn to the carrels, Ms. Hayden says. After six months in operation, that is "one problem that didn't develop as much as we had anticipated," she says.

Escalators deliver arriving patrons to the information desks on each of the main floors. "There's a lot of professional excitement for the librarians. They've been reintroduced to the public. Everybody's discovering the library," Hayden says.

With city budget cutbacks, the library staff will shrink slightly this year. "We have a great deal of wonderful equipment, but we don't have the staff yet to operate it," Duff adds.

Video information terminals throughout the building help visitors locate almost anything they need. Possible destinations? The new computer-assisted research center; a "computer connection" room where machines and software will soon be available; advanced language lab equipment geared up with more than 90 languages; a large listening and music area; astounding Kurzweil machines that read aloud printed material for blind and visually impaired visitors.

"Chicago is a prime example of a library that does a lot of things that are nontraditional," Duff says. "In the business science and technology area there are resources for career counseling. We register voters, run programs on AIDS, invite community groups in with all kinds of lectures and demonstrations, provide services for video and audio tapes."

Capping the building is the 10th-floor "wintergarden," a surprising sky-lit room. It seems an afterthought to the building's overall design, and it's hard to imagine curling up with a book here. One announced intention is to rent the wintergarden at $5,000 an evening as a reception space. Experience will be the judge as to whether it works to place a profit-making pod atop the otherwise highly practical building.

Dropping to the basement of the building, one finds an acoustically sound auditorium already booked with a full schedule of events. Among the other surprising finds in the building is a drive-up window where books are available for pickup when ordered ahead by phone and an 18,000-square-foot children's library.

"We get over 10,000 visitors on some days in here," Duff says. "For the staff it's a combination of exhilaration and exhaustion."

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