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Chicago's Harold Washington Library: Where Gumbo Was (#59)


It was easy for guessers to mistake Chicago's central library building, named for the late Mayor, for a rail station or a public market, and to place it in Paris, Barcelona or Belgium. As a post-modernist building, it incorporates bits of the style and manner of all of them and more.


Gumbo member Jack was the first to put the clues together and suggest it was a library, and MAD Travel Diaries took it further with research and identified which one. Congratulations to both of you!


The building took years to agree on and plan, but its opening in 1991 allowed Chicagoans to exchange their frustration over the long process for pride in a unique building. The old library was closed in 1977 and became a cultural center; the main part of the collection went into storage, and years of politics and more left the city without a true central library.

1024px-9th_Level_Harold_Washington_Library But the building that eventually went up is handsome, airy and up-to-date. It's completely accessible, At 760,000 square feet, it claims the title as the largest single library building in the country.


When Harold Washington was elected Mayor in 1983, he got the ball rolling again for the library, including a design competition in 1987. Models of the five finalists are displayed in the building. The winning design, by Hammond, Beeby and Babka, was actually the second choice; the other design, though was too expensive to build. It would have been glassy and modern, and bridged the El tracks to use space across the street as well.


But the tracks were not ignored in this design, either; the station got a retro makeover whose colors and feel match the building.



Worth noting: Before the Chicago Fire of 1871, the city had no public libraries. The first one, eventually housed in the building that closed in 1977, was started by a gift of 6000 books donated in England to help out the fire-ravaged city.


Images (7)
  • 755px-Harold_Washington_Library_southwest_owl
  • 768px-Harold_Washington_Library,_Chicago,_IL_-_front_oblique
  • 963px-Harold_Washington_Library_southern_acroterion
  • 1024px-3rd_Level_Harold_Washington_Library
  • 1024px-Lobby_Harold_Washington_Library
  • Harold_Washington_Library-State-Van_Buren
  • 1024px-9th_Level_Harold_Washington_Library

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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