Loved and Hated, Old and New, Chicago’s Main Library Still Exudes Controversy

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It’s a Chicago building that can’t escape notice. And once you notice it, you can’t help but react to it.

The Harold Washington Library Center (400 South State Street) stands stalwart in the South Loop, once a decaying and sad part of the city, now the nexus of regeneration and vitality. Opened to the public in 1991, the design of Chicago’s central library building has always been more than a little controversial.

The building that made the American Institute of Architects 2007 list of America’s Favorite Architecture also made Travel & Leisure magazine’s list of the World’s 15 Ugliest Buildings just two years later. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin isn’t impressed: “I’ve never been a big fan of the Harold Washington Library Center–its classical facade is leaden, its rooftop ornament is cartoonish and its lobby has all the grace of a shopping mall.”

Harold Washington Library Center - Chicago, Illinois - September, 2004 - 020I’ve heard all kinds of comments from locals and visitors alike, and they truly do range from “love it” to “hate it.” People are at the very least fascinated by it; many a visitor stops to take a photograph. Architecture writer Lynn Becker has written much about the building and calls it “the end of a long, sad saga where the greatest priority wasn’t making a great building, but risk management.”

The saga goes back to the late 1960s-mid 1970s and the original home of Chicago’s central library, today’s Cultural Center on Michigan Avenue. The library needed service and technology upgrades plus its collection had outgrown the classical edifice. The nearly five million volume collection was exiled and began a 15-year nomadic odyssey from one warehouse to another waiting for a new permanent home.

Finally in 1986 the City and the Library Board chose a location and readied a bond issue. Mayor Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of the city and a great advocate of the library, died in office in November 1987. The library would be named in his honor.

That same year, the Board of Directors of the Chicago Public Library and City’s Department of Planning proposed a design/build competition, which was authorized by the City Council, along with a bond issue for a $140 million contract. An 11-member jury was chosen and charged with selecting the winning plan, then submitting to the City Council.

Controversy in many ways begins here. The design/build competition format calls for teams of architects/contractors/engineers/developers to enter comprehensive proposals; not only is the design in final form, they detail their process, and describe how they will keep within budget and on schedule. The developer is the key player and actually assumes the responsibility.

The City was committed to the design/build format — one, for credibility reasons; to assure the public construction would be done on time and within budget, unlike other projects in then-recent memory. Secondly, to allow public input — 30,000 people visited displays of the five proposals and 8,000 provided written comments to the jury. And thirdly, to finalize major design decisions early in the process, preventing protracted design debates.

Harold Washington Library Center - Chicago, Illinois - September, 2004 - 014aChicago architects, including the leaders of the AIA, objected to the format. They argued for a two-phase competition, one that would focus on design first and attract more and smaller firms. They believed that the design/build format gave developers the upper hand and good design would be “the likely casualty.” Lynn Becker agrees that good design was not the priority, because, “…the architect is a part …of a team… sometimes little more than window-dressing…with a set of rules that almost guaranteed mediocrity. Most design competitions are won on the quality of architectural design, but that wasn’t the Chicago way.”

The Library Board of Directors had prepared a 1,000-page document with specifications for the building, including the requirement to not include a grand reading room. Designers were given the option to extend the building north over the “L” tracks, and two of the teams did.

It resulted in a disappointing outcome for what was to be an “international competition.” More than 200 architectural firms expressed interest, at least two dozen were expected to submit proposals; yet only six teams met the deadline for submitting qualifications and only five prepared a submission.

The entry by Dirk Lohan Associates was considered the most “Chicago” of the designs, with its light-filled glass and steel box, large atrium, and grand staircase. Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp favored this design by the grandson of groundbreaking architect Mies van der Rohe.

Hemut Jahn’s entry was predictably radical, with geometric shapes arranged whimsically and a lofty lobby that traversed the “L.”

The Skidmore, Owings & Merrill entry was a mildly postmodern Chicago School office block; the interior soaring space was thrilling, but the exterior was disappointing.

Canadian Arthur Erickson’s entry was a crowd-pleaser: a huge, glowing concrete hulk with rounded shapes, but it didn’t impress the judges as much.

In the end, Hammond, Beeby & Babka’s was the winner. A solid cube of masonry with postmodern detailing, it was “clearly the most conservative,” Jury Chairman Norman Ross said. “It is a gentle building, with noble spaces. It’s beautiful. This looks like a library. This is a building you can trust.”

The winning team was actually called the SEBUS Group, which is an acronym for its team members: Schal Associates (construction services), A. Epstein and Sons International (engineer/architect), Hammond, Beeby & Babka (architects), and U.S. Equities Realty (developer).

Native Chicagoan Thomas H. Beeby, principal of the architecture firm and former Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, headed the design team. He was one of the “Chicago Seven,” a group of architects in 1976 who called for more openness in design, making a philosophical breakaway from strict adherence to the International Style.

The 756,000 square foot monumental structure, which occupies the full city block bordered by Congress, State, Van Buren and Plymouth, took roughly three years to complete and opened to the public on October 7, 1991. At the time of its completion, it was the largest single library building in the United States and the second largest in the world (after the British Library) by floor space.

The expectation of the city and its citizens was for this building to be monumental. To demonstrate, despite technology, the continued need for civic monuments; to enshrine values and proclaim them in physical form. Many people agree that the Library succeeds in communicating civic importance.

It is perhaps not surprising that many people think the Library is an old Chicago building. As a postmodern structure, it references the past, making it seem somehow familiar while also blending in well with its nineteenth-century neighbors. Its textured, varied materials give it a handcrafted look. And for the first time since the 1930’s, we see exterior figurative ornamentation on a large American public building.

As it’s been called “a building of memories,” the Harold Washington Library Center is intended to be a celebration of iconic Chicago architecture.

First, its distinct tripartite structure (base, shaft, capital) conjures up the late nineteenth-century Chicago School of tall commercial buildings. And it occupies its entire site, rising right up from the sidewalk. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger says the building sits on the street “with a firmness and rightness that calls to mind such Chicago monuments as The Rookery,…the Monadnock..and Jenney’s Second Leiter Building,” right across the street.

The heavy stone base looks like it is load-bearing, but it is merely sheathed in rusticated granite. This bold, rough texture evokes both the load-bearing Rookery and the Auditorium Buildings. In the base, arched door openings and windows seem “punched” into the granite. And the combination of rusticated stone and rounded arches calls to mind the architect that inspired so many Chicago architects: H.H. Richardson.

In a lesser-seen view, the west facade is completely different ; no heavy, load-bearing-like stone here. Facing Plymouth Court and mirroring the Manhattan and Old Colony Buildings, a very modern glass curtain wall rises, in tribute to Mies van der Rohe. All that glass provides ample light for the Library’s offices.

The slight outward-sloping walls of the base powerfully point to Burnham & Root’s Monadnock Building, while the curving chain link guilloche, which binds the base together, mimics that on Holabird & Roche’s Marquette Building. The organic shapes of the verdigris metal lamps and other metal ornamentation point to Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott store.

The dramatic five-story windows with compound arch surrounds pay homage to the arches on Sullivan’s Auditorium Building. The cast stone festoons break up the facade. If you look closely in some of the festoon medallions, you will see the Chicago “Y” municipal symbol with “CPL” embedded: Chicago Public Library. Other medallions showcase “Windy City Man!”

Harold Washington Library Center - Chicago, Illinois - September, 2004 - 024The vertical pendants with corn stalk designs coupled with the narrow windows lend a touch of Beaux-Arts feel, hearkening to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Where the pendants meet the base of the building, behold the heads of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, making a more down-to-earth appearance than her top of the Board of Trade perch. The ribbon beneath her head contains Chicago’s motto: “Urbs et Hortis” (City in a Garden).

Atop the building is the triangular pediment, referencing the neo-classical Art Institute. Above the projecting metal cornice is a railing with the swords and shields pattern symbolizing soldiers defending the building. Another nod to the Art Institute are the acroteria – the corner embellishments often found on the corners and peaks of classical structures. But, in the Library’s case, the acroteria are seven giant aluminum ornaments featuring humongous owls and foliage!

Harold Washington Library Center - Chicago, Illinois - September, 2004 - 004The building was completed in 1991, but it wasn’t until two years later that the acroteria were installed. Lynn Becker says that Beeby had created a restrained postmodern design, stripped of the usual excesses of that era. But, in 1993 “Beeby’s restraint received a deliriously goofy counterpoint with the installation of gargantuan owls on the roof that looked like they’d just flown in from a Batman movie.”

Artist Raymond Kaskey from Baltimore created the acroteria owls, which represent wisdom and learning (and are NOT gargoyles). The five owls are perched at the four corners and the largest (3,000 pounds and 20 feet tall) over the State Street entrance, clutching a book in its talons, preparing for flight. The owls are surrounded by exuberant foliage: five-leaf Greek palmettes, seedpods and feathered helixes. They are pitched forward to be visible from the street.

The interior of the Library Center sounds like it should be impressive. The Board’s plan called for good quality construction and materials, so plaster walls, solid maple furniture, bronze entrance doors, marble floors were installed. A one million dollar art budget brought in some exciting works, with a permanent collection representing more than 50 artists. The two-story ground floor lobby has terrazzo floors and marble wainscoting.

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Harold Washington Library Center main entrance

So why does it feel so unsuccessful? When I first visited, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but now – with the help of other critical voices – I have pinpointed why the interior doesn’t uplift.

First, the flow for library patrons is not friendly. You have to travel an illogical sequence of three escalators simply to get near the stacks. There is a popular library on the main floor, what one critic calls the “7-11” library, but the main route most people take is convoluted and just a hassle.

Second, the massive lobby should be a bit awe-inspiring; why isn’t it? Lynn Becker weighs in: “For all of the building’s bulk, ‘There’s no there there,’ as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland….Even the great hall on the ground floor, with its mezzanine and central opening to the floor below, is so square and colorless that it feels not so much invitingly spacious as uneasily claustrophobic.”

And finally, the low lighting in conjunction with the cold, gray walls creates an oppressive environment.

I agree with Lynn Becker that the interior is “unrelentingly gray.” It has a depressed industrial feeling to it, despite the high-quality materials and the furniture and the art.

Winter garden at the Harold Washington Library Center

Winter garden at the Harold Washington Library Center

But the book floors have pockets of beauty. The switch-back escalators evoke the bygone days of department stores and the serene reading alcoves are well designed. And the ninth floor features the Winter Garden, a sky-lit, graceful space used for civic functions and rental events. It provides a delightful illusion of an urban courtyard with its natural light and olive trees – and stunning views of the surrounding city.

Whether you love it or hate it, the Harold Washington Library Center will not be ignored. As a contemporary building that points to Chicago’s past, it holds a unique place in the urban landscape.

Author: Wendy Bright

Wendy Bright is a Rogers Park architectural historian and the curator of the History of a House Museum. She has a masters in art history and is an avid photographer.

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