You might know that the Harold Washington Library was named after Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor, but did you know the building itself is an homage to many elements of Chicago’s architectural legacy? The library, designed by Hammond, Beeby and Babka, and completed in 1991, is the result of a design contest held to replace the main branch of the Chicago Public Library system. Once housed in what is now the Cultural Center, the main branch had been relegated for years in a series of temporary spaces after it outgrew its confines. Its present home — the largest public library in the United States when it was constructed — is intended to accommodate decades of future growth. At first glance, the imposing structure may not seem very distinctive from other library buildings, but if you look closely, you will recognize elements from many of Chicago’s architectural icons. Nearly all of the buildings referenced in the library’s exterior design are within easy walking distance.
Art Institute: The sloping elements at the top of the Harold Washington Library are known as pediments. The decorative elements are called acroteria. They are meant to reference the pediment and acroteria of the original section of the Art Institute of Chicago, which dates from the Colombian Exposition of 1893.
Auditorium Building: The Auditorium building, dating from 1889, was originally designed to house three separate functions: an office block facing Wabash Avenue, an opera house which is now home to the Auditorium Theater, and an elegant European style hotel facing Michigan Avenue. Now occupied by Roosevelt University, the Auditorium building was a main factor in Chicago’s winning the privilege of hosting the Colombian Exposition. Its soaring arched windows are referenced in those of the Harold Washington Library.
Board of Trade: The statue that stands atop the Board of Trade building, constructed in 1930, is a stylized representation of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. She has no face, but the Harold Washington Library has several representations of her face on its exterior walls.
Marquette Building: The rounded shapes that line up just above the base of the Harold Washington library building are meant to reference those that grace the Marquette Building, constructed in 1895. The Marquette Building, now owned by the MacArthur Foundation, is one of the very best examples from the Chicago Commercial school of architectural design.
Monadnock Building: The small arches incorporated into the face of the Harold Washington library building are meant to reference the recessed windows of the Monadnock building, constructed in two phases in 1891 and 1893. The original section of the Monadnock building is constructed in load bearing brick-and-mortar style, and is the tallest brick-and-mortar commercial skyscraper in the world. The deeply recessed windows are a product of necessity — the walls at the base of the building are a full six feet thick.
The Rookery: What looks like heavy stone construction on the base of the Harold Washington library building is merely a facade. The building is actually constructed of reinforced concrete. But the rusticated stone of the building it references, the Rookery, dating from 1888, is genuine.
If you have the occasion to visit the Harold Washington library, pause before you enter. You’ll be reminded that the building not only honors one of Chicago’s legendary figures, but that it is a living legacy of the city that Harold Washington loved. It is truly a Chicago original.