Friday, February 20, 2015

The Newberry Library
 by: chicago designslinger

 [The Newberry Library (1893) Henry Ives Cobb, architect /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

There was a time in this country's history when going to the library meant you were either a dues paying member, or you had the wherewithal to build your own private library and invite guests to share in your scholarly largess. So back in the 1860s when Walter A. Newberry had made more money than he knew what to do with he drew up a will that included a large bequest which would provide funding for Chicago's first, free public (as in the general public) library. There was a small catch, the funds wouldn't become available until his wife died, and his adult daughters died "without issue."

  [The Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Walter died in 1868 not long after drafting his will, and by 1876 both of his unmarried and childless daughters were dead. Chicago was all a twitter after daughter Julia Rose's demise because everyone knew about Walter's library will-funding codicil. But the bereaved widow was still alive, and since by this time the city had decided that they would open their own free, circulating, public library, some of the thunder was taken out of Newberry's generous civic gesture. So the Newberry trustees, who now held sway over the estate, decided that the focus of their library would be research, particularly scholarly historical research, but nothing could, or would, happen until Mrs. Newberry's demise.

  [The Newberry Library, Washington Square Historic District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Which she did die in 1885, $2.5 million was released to the library trust fund. The first thing the two trustees did was to pick a building in which to open, and after a few moves to temporary locations around town, the trustees picked a site where they could construct a purpose-built home. They had selected the square block where Mahlon D. Ogden's Chicago Fire-surviving-house overlooked Washington Square Park, and in 1888 chose architect Henry Ives Cobb to design the structure. The project was so important to Cobb that dissolved his business partnership with Charles Frost, to focus all of his time and attention on the library commission. It was a wise decision. With two very opinionated trustees and one headstrong head librarian to please, the architect was kept busy revising and reworking drawings for the next three years.
Finally in 1893 Cobb's substantial, Romanesque Revival building opened to researching scholars. Getting the project helped put Cobb into the city's starchitect category, and over the next 10 years he designed many of Chicago's more prominent building projects kicking-off a career. Cobb's building filled only one-half of the square block site, and as the the library grew to include over 1.5 million books, an outstanding collection of illustrated manuscripts, and a collection of maps dating back to the mid-17th century, an addition designed by architect Harry Weese was built behind Cobb's Washington Square-facing stronghold in 1981. The Newberry has become one of the top genealogical research libraries in the country, and although the fortress-like structure seems intimidatingly impenetrable, the Newberry holds all kinds of events open to the general public, and you can gain access to the collection without having to be a credentialed, many degreed, university affiliated, professorial scholar.

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