Books often hold mysteries and strange facts, but the library buildings holding them are generally less interesting. Not so with Chicago’s stately Newberry Library at 60 West Walton Street. The Newberry Library has some very interesting architectural elements, and wealthy benefactor Walter Newberry—who gave the library its name—well, let’s just say that his life ended in a manner worthy of a book.
I learned these true tales of the Newberry Library, along with a couple of dozen photography aficionados, organized by our fearless leader Rich Kolar, who heads up the Chicago Streets and Beyond Photography Meet-up Group. It’s free to join and anyone with a camera is welcome. You can get more information at meetup.com/Chicago-Streets-and-Beyond-Photography-Group/
The Newberry Library is also worth a trip, whether you’re researching genealogy or just want to check out its ornate design. It’s a non-profit, independent, public research library that holds 1.5 million books, seven million manuscript pages, and 100,000 maps. The Newberry specializes in western studies and humanities. It’s one of 15 independent libraries of its kind in the U.S. It also has quite an interesting history, as you’ll see.
1. Architect Henry Ives Cobb designed the library with his trademark Italian Renaissance style, similar to the buildings he worked on at UIC. He also favored arches. If you look at the outside of the library from the Dearborn and Clark side, you’ll see five large arches and a sixth half-arch. There’s speculation that the building was designed that way to accommodate an extension that was never added.
2. Cobb had a little fun with the exterior of the library, adding a few details that weren’t in the original plans. If you look closely at the stonework you’ll see an array of faces—some grumpy, some happy—carved into the cornice.
3. The light fixtures and lobby chandelier are extra curvy. They were chosen specifically to flaunt the fact that the building had electricity, considered a high-tech accomplishment early in the 20th century. Often, light fixtures were converted from gas to electricity, but with curlicues of this sort, it would be impossible.
4. The library was completed in 1893, but during construction there were a few bumps in the road. For instance, the building was supposed to take over the entire square block with a courtyard in the middle. The trouble was, once building began, it was about halfway finished and the board of trustees figured out if they continued to build it as it was designed, they wouldn’t have any money left to buy books. So the courtyard was abandoned.
5. Walter Newberry’s wife was opposed to her husband’s plans to give half of his estate to fund a library (which came to $250,000). He wanted desperately to have his name carried on somehow but his first idea didn’t work out. He offered a cool $100,000 to any suitor who agreed to marry one of his daughters, but there was a catch. The suitor would be required to change his surname to Newberry. Alas, there were no takers.
6. The Conservation Department at the Newberry Library used to be a bookbindery. Now, the staff focuses on conservation, which is unlike restoration. They don’t try to return a book or manuscript to its original condition, but rather preserve it in its current state. You might want to invest in sweaters if you’re interested in a career in conservation, though. That area of the library has a constant temperature of 62 degrees, and 45% humidity.
7. The Newberry Library sits just opposite Washington Square Park, a/k/a, Bughouse Square (from the slang for mental health facility). Every summer, Chicago’s history as a bastion of free speech rings out at Bughouse Square during a series of spirited debates and speakers standing atop a soapbox. There’s usually a marching band and other entertainment. The champion soapboxer is awarded a giant dill pickle. It’s a reference to the Dill Pickle Club, a gathering place a stone’s throw from Bughouse Square.
8. Walter Newberry was rich but not fit. He was turned down by West Point because of ill health. (His unlucky-in-love daughters weren’t the picture of health, either.) A family holiday to the mineral baths in the south of France ended up about as badly for the Newberrys as any of the National Lampoon Vacation sequels. Mrs. Newberry and the girls took off on a sailing ship and awaited Walter, who was coming from Chicago. He fell ill on his trip and died at sea. The ship’s crew and captain knew their expired passenger was prominent and wealthy, so they didn’t toss the body overboard as they might with a deckhand. On the other hand, they were highly superstitious about having a corpse on the boat. They had no facilities to deal with the situation, so the crew got creative. They put Walter Newberry’s body in a barrel. It wasn’t filled with pickle juice, but rather a potable common on sailing ships: rum. The crew dragged the barrel alongside the ship tied off by a rope. Happy hour at sea!