After being a vagabond in its own city for more than a decade, the Chicago Public Library on this date settled into a permanent home, a 10-story, classically styled building that cost $144 million and was billed, in true Chicago fashion, as the largest public library in the world.
The library's central collection had been shifted among several warehouses while a protracted civic debate considered the question of where a new library should be built. At one point, the city even considered renovating an empty State Street department store for the book collection.Not that a department store would have been the oddest location the library had occupied. After the fire of 1871, the people of Britain sent 8,000 books to the city to help in what they assumed would be the restoration of the city's incinerated book collection. In fact, in the course of growing into the commercial center of the mid-continent, Chicago had never gotten around to starting a library. With nowhere else to put it, the British benefaction was housed in an empty water tank.
In 1897, the library moved into a grand edifice at Michigan Avenue between Randolph and Washington Streets. This stately structure, designed by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, was richly ornamented with mosaic tile and a Tiffany dome, but it was a fragmented building.
Part of it was set aside for the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Civil War veterans, which had been promised a Civil War museum on the site. The building quickly became too small for the library's rapidly expanding collections. After the library moved out in 1975, the Michigan Avenue building became the city's Cultural Center.
When the department store proposal was finally rejected in the mid-1980s, an architectural competition was held. The winning design, by Thomas Beeby of Hammond, Beeby and Babka, did not meet with universal approval. Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp called the building a "heavy, lackluster statement."
But the fact that the city at last had a permanent home (named for the late Mayor Harold Washington) for the library's collection of 6 million books, periodicals, photographs and other items was cause enough for celebration. "Chicago finally has a pubic library worthy of a world-class city," the Tribune said in an editorial.
In 1996, Bill Gates, chairman of the computer software firm Microsoft Corp., gave the library system $1 million to install fiber-optic links to the Internet at all of the library's 82 branches. That seemed to guarantee the library a role in the electronic future. As for its printed past, more than 7,600 books of the original 8,000 volumes donated by the British have disappeared over the years--lost, stolen or, at the very least, long overdue.