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Harold Washington Library Center
400 South State Street
Chicago
Illinois

Thomas Beeby of Hammond, Beeby & Babka 1991
A. Epstein & Sons International, associate architects

Hammond, Beeby & Babka won a much-publicized and controversial commission to design the largest library building in the country, and spent $195 million to carry out this missive.

When downtown Chicago was levelled in the Great Fire of 1871, the "can-do" city sprung almost immediately from whole cloth. Whether or not you like the Library Center probably depends upon whether you think this early cohesiveness and its directional impact is comforting or anti-innovative. It certainly is unlike any library I’ve ever been in: enormous, well-organized, amply staffed, and blessed with good signage. These attributes, along with the centrally organizing escalators, often make the library feel more like a well-heeled retail mall than a library, awaiting only a Starbucks cafe.

The building has taken much flak for its unabashed post-modern behemoth-ness; but Chicago loves its public library system; is big and loves big things; and takes great pride in its historic architecture. Now it has a great big historic-looking library. Ask and ye shall receive.

Or, in the words of eminent architectural historian Vincent Scully, "This is a classicism that, in a sense, is all Chicago: big and brutal like the city itself, but specifically metallic and fluid like the interlocking iron work of Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott store...one powerful mass, built of the very bones and blood of Chicago, of the tough body of the Loop, and the ancient urban gesture of its classical facade." (AIA Guide to Chicago).

 

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Christy Rogers, 1998


How to visit

Downtown Chicago is best negotiated by foot, cab, or train. The closest stop on the loop is the Library stop; on the red line, the Jackson stop.


 

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