A New Home for the State Library

But the wait for a new State Library building was now past its third score. Secretary Paul Powell had urgently requested a new library facility in 1968, with his calls echoed by successors. Some efforts at planning had been made in the early 1970s, but frustratingly little action had been taken. A 1976 Illinois Capitol Development Board study on construction of a new library building promoted the site just east of the Capitol. Although the study would ultimately prove visionary, no action was taken, and years would be spent in waiting for badly needed new quarters. By the late 1980s, the library’s collection had grown to 4.7 million items, some of which had to be housed offsite, and was expanding at the rate of 250,000 items per year. Despite being one of the largest and most influential of state libraries, the Illinois State Library did not have the physical facilities to match. Among other state libraries, Illinois’ was 30th in linear feet shelving, 27th in available seating, and 18th in building square footage.867

The need for a new State Library building quickly became one of Secretary of State Jim Edgar’s pet projects. Through the years, few legislators had appreciated the role of the State Library in state librarianship. Even as recently as the early 1970s, observers remembered that beyond funding, the State Library was largely ignored by lawmakers. But Edgar was acutely aware of the importance of the State Library. With the help of Director Bridget Lamont, Secretary Edgar now made a new State Library building a top priority.868

The efforts of Edgar and Lamont soon paid off. On Feb. 5, 1985, Governor Jim Thompson called for a new State Library building in his “State of the State” address. Thompson’s words reflected the importance of the State Library to the citizens of Illinois.

“I propose that we build a new State Library in Springfield for all of Illinois – a library that works, not a warehouse that doesn’t – and that we spend $25 million over the next two years to do it.”869

Thompson appropriated the money as part of his Build Illinois initiative, a $2 billion statewide plan for construction and infrastructure. Some $19.5 million was to be spent on public library construction in Illinois, thereby expanding the decade’s library building boom. In mid-February 1985, Thompson released $250,000 in planning money for the new State Library. While there was mild concern that the General Assembly would reject  Thompson’s public-works measure, lawmakers supported the Governor’s plans, thanks in part to growing support for a new library building. The initiative allowed for a 155,000-squarefoot library building, nearly three times larger than the library’s 56,000 square feet in the Centennial Building. Although smaller than Edgar had hoped for, the new library was a massive upgrade from the existing surroundings.870

A total of $7 million was spent on the initial 12-month phase of the library-building project. The money paid for demolition of existing buildings on the site and for preliminary design work. The 332-by-332-foot-lot chosen in the 1976 report was selected, and the Illinois Capitol Development Board sponsored another architecture contest. The Chicago firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White, whose credits included the Loyola University Law School, the Loyola University administrative offices, the Motorola World Headquarters, and the CNA Financial Building, was the contest winner. For the first time in its centuryand-a-half of existence, the State Library would have its own building.871

Secretary Edgar made it clear that he wanted the new library building to resemble the other buildings in the Capitol Complex. The architects identified three “architecturally distinguished, historical landmarks” of Beaux Arts design – the Capitol, the Supreme Court Building (located across Capitol Avenue, south of the planned library site), and the Centennial Building. While the Centennial Building was poorly suited for a library, no one questioned the beauty of its library reading room, nor its grand exterior. Ironically, the same building from which the State Library was so eager to escape served as one model for its new home. With its “Corinthian portico of twelve columns flanked by pavilions of the same order” and “high, rusticated podium,” the “Beaux Arts monumental language of architecture” was selected by the architects for adaptation into the new library design.872

The decision for new buildings to blend in with the rest of the Capitol Complex was not a new one. Since its construction in 1954, the Stratton Building, west of the Capitol, had been roundly criticized for its inability to match the design of other buildings in the complex. However, not everyone agreed that new buildings in the complex should resemble the others, including Governor Thompson, who once said of plans for matching buildings, “Let’s jazz it up a little.” One critic wrote in 1990 of the “Edgarian ideal” of “a government complex in which everything ‘matches,’ like a bedroom suite.” Cost was another concern, as some believed that simpler building materials, such as steel and glass, were more appropriate than the Indiana limestone that was eventually chosen for the exterior.873

But Edgar was determined in his design preferences, and many shared his views. “The concern I’ve heard from people is, what is going to happen to the Capitol Complex; is this going to fit in?” said Edgar in 1987. The answer was yes. The Indiana limestone had also been used in the Centennial Building, as well as the Illinois Archives Building. Stone was alleged to be a “better environmental barrier” in preserving rare library holdings.874

The exterior design included a row of double, doric columns on an arcaded, rusticated podium with two simple pavilions on either side. The central entrance, facing west toward the Capitol, was a two-tiered plaza surrounded by two stone pools and a two symmetrically composed accessible ramps. Additional entries were located on north and south sides of the building. To some, the revival-style structure was unimaginative, much like a copy of the grandiose public buildings of a century before. One critic called it “a bold leap into the past.”875

Edgar and Lamont planned the building down to the last detail, with subtleties in mind. “I wanted that building to be clearly seen from the Capitol,” said Lamont. “I wanted everyone in the Capitol Building to look out their windows and be constantly reminded of the importance of libraries in Illinois.876

“The handicapped accessibility was also important,” continued Lamont. “The library building went up before many of the current accessibility laws were enacted, and we were kind of at the forefront of that. We thought it was important to have that accessibility in place, to show that everyone could come to the library.”877

While the exterior is majestic, the interior is equally magnificent. An atrium measuring 80 feet from the marble floor and designed “in monumental fashion” is the building’s signature. Narrow and long, the atrium is a reflection of the shape of the building. A coffered, barrel ceiling is supported by fluted pilasters. The interior is divided into three north-south spaces. The west-facing facade opens to offices and activity spaces; the center houses the atrium, with the rear (east) side providing storage, including the stacks. Across this space span a series of bridges, connecting the east and west sides of the building. Provisions were made for possible expansion on the east side. Two flights of stairs, also described as “monumental,” ascend to the second-floor reference center. Towering cathedral-style windows at either end of the atrium allow plentiful natural light to complement the marble and natural stone of the interior and create a dynamic, off-white glow. Since its inception in 1839, the State Library had enjoyed visually striking quarters. The new library would continue that tradition.878

In September 1987, the Architectural Record evoked the rich history of Illinois in its view of the new State Library building.

“Located on the grounds of the domed 1886 [sic] State Capitol and surrounded by other late 19th- and early 20th-century government buildings, the new five-story library goes beyond merely evoking the feeling of its Classical Revival neighbors and instead seems a deliberate exercise in reviving Beaux Arts technique with its rusticated podium, double row of Doric columns, and interior atrium defined by fullheight fluted pilasters and a coffered, vaulted atrium. Here in the Land of Lincoln, such respect for the past can only be deemed fitting and proper.”879

Construction bids were submitted in June 1987 and, after two tentative groundbreaking dates had passed with no activity, work finally began in September 1987. Buildings on the site that formerly housed Department of Public Aid offices and a restaurant were demolished. Traffic was rerouted on Second Street for several weeks in early 1988 as sewer lines were relocated and utility tunnels were built. The city of Springfield took much interest in the construction, with newspaper stories noting the size of the project and the economic importance to the community.880

On April 13, 1988, a “beam signing” ceremony was held to commemorate the physical erection of the building. Attended by a crowd of 300, the beam signing ceremony exemplified the meaning of the State Library building to the people of Illinois. In her welcoming remarks, Lamont noted that the new building expressed “the commitment of the state of Illinois to a library for state government and a library with the mandate to promote libraries throughout Illinois…we will serve all the people of Illinois.” Edgar, before ceremoniously signing the beam, called the library “a computer-age doorway to worldwide information about government and public affairs.” In a moment of eloquence, the Secretary then invited the public to sign the beam. “It’s your building,” stated Edgar. “Your names should be a part of it.”881