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The Harold Washington Library Center (HWLC) is the main branch of the Chicago Public Library system. In 1987, the branch and its location were strongly advocated for by then Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. Mayor Washington wished to solve two issues; revitalizing what had become a seedy district in downtown Chicago and making a main central library when none existed at the time. Mayor Washington authorized a design contest for the library, but died before the contest was over. The city subsequently picked a design by architect Thomas Beeby (of Hammond, Beeby, and Babka) as the contest winner and the new library, named for Mayor Washington, opened its doors on October 7th, 1991.

The "Winter Garden" at HWLC is actually an atrium on the ninth floor

Building, Lobby, Architecture, Daylighting

This view of HWLC shows how physically imposing the building is

Building, Landmark, Architecture, Metropolitan area

This is one of the owls perched on top of HWLC. Per the Chicago Public Library, "the owl always returns his books."

Owl on the façade of HWLC

This view shows some of the businesses on the site of what would later become the HWLC

Urban area, Metropolitan area, City, Building

This view looks north from what is now HWLC, capturing businesses on what is now the site of Pritzker Park.

Night, Urban area, Metropolitan area, City

In 1975, the Chicago Public Library began to vacate the outdated and deteriorating central branch and split the branch’s massive collection between numerous different locations. [3] [6] For more than a decade, no permanent home could be found or agreed upon for a new main branch. In 1987 the neighborhood on the south end of the Loop (Chicago’s central business district) was best described as seedy and rundown. In particular, the area near Van Buren St and State St was home to adult book stores, peep shows, and numerous other types of lower end businesses. [6]

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington devised a plan to solve both problems; a large parcel on the west side of State St around Van Buren St would serve as the new home of the Chicago Public Library main branch. [6] This library would eliminate many of the rundown properties and also serve as an anchor for new more upscale ones. Mayor Washington also proposed that the design for the library could be found via a design and build contest. The city council agreed to the plan and budgeted $144 million dollars in order to fund the new library. [4] [5] [6]

Mayor Washington died in November of 1987, but his plan for the library was already well underway. [6] In October of that year the contest had been formally announced; only six proposals were submitted prior to the December deadline. [1] Some critics complained that this was because the city had required that submittals not only include the actual design but also details on how it would fit the budget. [1] An 11 member citizen jury (each chosen by Mayor Washington) was assembled to judge the designs and pick a winner. [4] Of the six submittals, one by architect Thomas Beeby of the Hammond, Beeby, and Babka firm won out. [2] Beeby’s design was an enormous cube shaped building which would occupy an entire block of State St. The design was purposely imposing, meant to impress a sense of being “monumental”. [3] Huge owls adorned the top of the building, symbolizing the wisdom to be found within. [3]

After Beeby’s plan won out, an early complaint surfaced. Part of the parcel of land that the city had committed to the library was north of Van Buren on the west side of State St. Beeby’s plan did not make use of this space, and instead earmarked it as “future commercial development”. [2] An argument between community members/groups ensued, in which some argued for a permanent open space (fearing that future development might overshadow the new library) and others worried that open space would attract “street preachers, the untalented musicians, the homeless”. [2] Open space eventually won out, and the site is now occupied by Pritzker Park.

Another complaint about the HWLC has simply been that Beeby’s design is unattractive. The design has certainly provoked strong reactions on either side of the fence. In a 2013 Chicago Architecture article, author Wendy Bright pointed out that the library was included in the 2010 Travel & Leisure magazine’s list of the World’s 15 Ugliest Buildings but had also been listed in the American Institute of Architects 2007 list of America’s Favorite Architecture. [3] Whether or not one believes that the HWLC design is an attractive one, it is clear that Harold Washington’s vision was a success. What was once a downtrodden area of downtown is now vibrant and modernized. Also, the HWLC has acted as the central/main library branch for nearly thirty years now, a monument to its own success.

  1. Devall, Cheryl. "Only 6 Teams Bid to Build S. Loop Library". In Chicago Tribune (December 9, 1987). https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1987-12-09-8704010495-story.html.
  2. Kamin, Blair. "Library Design Gets OK, But A Problem Remains". In Chicago Tribune (June 22, 1988). https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1988-06-22-8801090572-story.html.
  3. Bright, Wendy. "Loved and Hated, Old and New, Chicago’s Main Library Still Exudes Controversy". In Chicago Architecture (May 30, 2013). https://www.chicagoarchitecture.org/2013/05/30/9944/.
  4. "Harold Washington Library Center: About HWLC". From the Chicago Public Library. https://www.chipublib.org/about-hwlc/.
  5. "Harold Washington Library Center Design/Build Competition". From the Chicago Public Library, preserved on the WayBack Machine internet archive. Accessed on October 27, 2020. https://web.archive.org/web/20140330072550/http://www.chipublib.org/branch/details/library/harold-washington/p/About/
  6. Steffes, Patrick. "Building New: 25 Years of the Harold Washington Library Center". On Forgotten Chicago (September 20, 2016). https://forgottenchicago.com/articles/building-new-25-years-of-the-harold-washington-library-center/
Image Sources(Click to expand)

Chicago Public Library (https://www.chipublib.org/private-event-rentals/)

Chicago Public Library (https://www.chipublib.org/about-hwlc/)

Chicago Public Library (https://www.chipublib.org/about-hwlc/)

Photograph from the C. William Brubaker Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1982. Retrieved from Forgotten Chicago [6].

Photograph from the Chuckman Collection. Retrieved from Forgotten Chicago [6].