Building New: 25 Years of the Harold Washington Library Center
by Patrick Steffes


Top: Temporary Central Library Directory, The Chicago Public Library, 1975 Bottom: Courtesy of Joe Sislow

Starting in 1975, the Central Chicago Public Library began moving out of its home since 1897 on North Michigan Avenue between Washington and Randolph Streets to several temporary quarters, including the twelfth floor of the Mandel Building at 211 East North Water Street, facing the Chicago River and just east of North Michigan Avenue. The enormous size of this riverfront structure may be seen in a slide of the April 26, 1951 parade honoring the recently-fired General Douglas MacArthur, seated far left.

As detailed in the first part of this article, the south end of Chicago’s State Street shopping district had been in a state of substantial decline for decades. Sixteen years after Chicago’s former Central Library began moving out of its long-time home on Michigan Avenue into a series of temporary quarters, the new Harold Washington Library Center (HWLC) was dedicated on October 4, 1991, a fitting tribute to a mayor who championed a world-class new central library. Not coincidentally, HWLC was built on a block that until the 1980s had been home to many marginal and unsavory businesses.

The completed HWLC at 400 South State Street has been a major factor in the enormous revitalization of the area around State Street and Congress Parkway, as well as a testament to Washington’s skills as a master politician to build a world-class and purpose-built new library. However, more than four years would pass between the approval of a bond issue to pay for the library and its dedication, as detailed below.

In true Forgotten Chicago fashion, also explored in this article is what historic remnants are still extant along South State Street today. Highlighted below are some often-overlooked fragments of this street’s fabled history from the 1930s to the 1970s.

Goldblatt’s: The Unrealized New Central Library

The Chicago Public Library: New Central Library, 333 South State, 1986

With no central library for several years by the early 1980s, an early contender to house the new central library was the former Goldblatt’s department store building on the east side of State Street between Jackson and Van Buren, and seen in its proposed conversion above. Less than a week after the store’s closing following the 1981 Christmas season, this building was being promoted in the Chicago Tribune as the ideal location of a new central library, at what was said to be at far less cost than constructing a new facility.1

Chicago Tribune, 1936

Goldblatt’s had a 45-year long history on State Street, purchasing the Davis Dry Goods Store, a unit of Marshall Field & Company in 1936 and quickly converting it to their own flagship of what had become a vast chain of discount stores throughout the region and as far east as Buffalo, New York. The Davis Store had only been in operation since January 1924, one of the shortest incarnations of a major retailer on State Street, and a rare business blunder during the 1920s and 1930s for Marshall Field & Company.

The Chicago Public Library: New Central Library, 333 South State, 1986

In 1986, architecture firm Lester B. Knight & Associates with Holabird & Root prepared a detailed (and quickly abandoned) plan for Goldblatt’s conversion to the new central library. Holabird & Root knew the building well, as it’s predecessor firm, Holabird & Roche, had designed this building that had opened in 1912. Originally built for the Rothschild’s department store, that company was acquired by Marshall Field’s in 1923 and renamed the Davis Store early the following year.

These library renderings at top use the existing State Street mall infrastructure, including extremely wide sidewalks and oversized bus shelters. Additionally, these plans show two different treatments of the corner at State and Jackson Streets, including one with a rounded corner and an addition on the north side rising the full height of the existing Goldblatt’s building.

The Chicago Public Library: New Central Library, 333 South State, 1986

Above is the unrealized plan showing the street level of the former Goldblatt’s building converted into the new central library. Following the bond issue vote to build a new central library on the west side of the 400 block of South State Street, this building would be converted to a mixed-use building. The former Goldblatt’s was remodeled by Daniel P. Coffey & Associates and contained retail on the lower and street-level floor, offices for the City of Chicago, and the downtown campus of DePaul University that opened in 1993, some 12 years after Goldblatt’s had closed.

Realty & Building, 1959

Plans for converting the Goldblatt’s store into the new central library involved tearing down the modest taxpayer building at the southeast corner of State and Jackson. Taxpayers are modest one- or two-story buildings often built as a placeholder on a lot until something larger can be built, with presumably enough rental income collected to cover the cost of the property taxes for the lot. It is not known when this building was completed or its architect; it would be demolished for the conversion of Goldblatt’s into DePaul Center in the early 1990s.

Demolishing the 400 Block of South State Street, Once And For All

C. William Brubaker Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1982

It is worth noting that with all the talk of a new central library at the former Goldblatt’s store one block to the north, by 1982 little had changed along the west side of State Street south of Van Buren, except now the 400 block hosts pornographic book stores and peep shows. Above is what is now the current home of the Harold Washington Library Center, and barely visible above center and below the “LOANS” sign is a long-vanished former entrance to what is now the Red Line subway.

Chuckman Collection, no date

The west side of State Street between Van Buren and Jackson had a modest collection of one- and two-story storefronts, seen above in this undated view. This property would be included in some of the unbuilt schemes for the new central library that would bridge the CTA tracks along Van Buren. These smaller buildings were demolished decades ago, and the site is now the location of Pritzker Park, a rare oasis of grass and open space in Chicago’s Loop.

Inland Architect, 1988

In 1987, less than four months before his untimely death, then-mayor Harold Washington had pushed for the building of a new Central Library on the block bounded by South State, Van Buren, Plymouth Court and Congress Parkway (seen above) with a $175 million bond unanimously approved for its construction by the Chicago City Council on July 27th.2

Following approval of the bond issue to build the library and demolition of buildings on the site, what was expected to be a major international design competition to build a new Central Library was announced. Planned as a design-build project where one firm would be responsible for design, construction, and any unforseen cost overruns, there would ultimately be just five final entries that met the competition’s criteria.

The International Competition for a New Chicago Central Library

Be sure to visit the 8th floor of the Harold Washington Library Center to see scale models of all the final competition entrants, some of which are shown below. The winning design for the library (not pictured here) is housed on the building’s ninth floor in a permanent exhibit celebrating the remarkable life, career, and legacy of Mayor Harold Washington.


Top: Patrick Steffes Bottom: Architectural Record, 1988

Metropolitan-Lohan, a group comprised of Lohan Associates with Johnson, Reid, Lee Architects submitted the design above, notable for its dramatic multi-story lobby and grand flanking staircases. Architect Dirk Lohan would design additions to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium, both completed in the 1990s. Lohan would also design a portion of the soon-to-be vacated global headquarters campus for McDonald’s Corporation in Oak Brook, Illinois, and the currently vacant former Ameritech headquarters / AT&T offices in Hoffman Estates, Illinois hit with a $131 million foreclosure lawsuit in September 2016.


Top: Patrick Steffes Bottom: Architectural Record, 1988

Paschen-Tishman-Jahn, consisting of Murphy/Jahn with Castro-Buchel and Roula Associates submitted perhaps the most daring plan for the new library, a structure that would perch on stilts and straddle the elevated lines above West Van Buren and continue north to what is now Pritzker Park. The elevated can be seen in the image at top and above left. The firm of Murphy/Jahn had completed in 1985 what is now known as the James R. Thompson Center, an enormous landmark state office building in the heart of the Chicago Loop on the site of the once-iconic Sherman Hotel.

Architectural Record, 1988

Unlike the far better known architectural competition for the Chicago Tribune of 1922, the Chicago central library competition was not influential, with none of the losing designs known to have been celebrated, copied, or widely reproduced in books or online. Notably, two of the most renowned North American architects of the 20th century, Mexico’s Ricardo Legoretta (design above) and Canada’s Arthur Erickson would collaborate on library designs that were not selected.

Marc Monaghan

Ricardo Legoretta (1931-2011) collaborated with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill at the Library ’88 Partnership for their unrealized library design. Legoretta’s only built work in the Chicago area is the colorful Max Palevsky Residential Commons at the University of Chicago, opening in 2001. Forgotten Chicago visited this site above during our Hyde Park Modernism Tour in 2012.


Top: Patrick Steffes Bottom: Architectural Record, 1988

Arthur Erickson (1924-2009) would collaborate with the John Buck Company and Vickrey / Ovresat / Awsumb Associates on the unbuilt library design above, that would also straddled the elevated tracks, and featured a distinctive water feature on the site of what is now Pritzker Park. While Erickson would never design a built project in Chicago, Chicago is poorer for not having a building by him, an architect whose personal life and career rivals Chicago’s most famous architect in both controversy and accomplishments.

Harold Washington Library Center

The winning design for what was is now known as the Harold Washington Library Center was submitted by The Sebus Group of Hammond Beeby Babka with John Wilson & Partners and A. Epstein & Sons, Architects. Entusiastically embracing the then-popular Postmodern Style of architecture, the completed library would ultimately lead to a dramatic revitalization of South State Street and the surrounding neighborhood, and functions remarkably well 25 years later as a public library building. The library’s ninth floor Wintergarden shown above is without question one of the most extraordinary public spaces of any civic building in the U.S.

Finding Remnants of a Bygone South State Street in 2016

Patrick Steffes

When the State Street Mall was demolished and reopened to traffic in 1996, this modest plaque was installed in a little-noticed location on the 400 block of South State Street, and remains there as of September 2016.

Twenty-five years after the Harold Washington Library Center opened, there are very few remnants along the west side of South State Street between Adams and Polk of its former incarnation of modest storefronts, vice establishments and the State Street Mall. With the 400 block demolished for the library, the 500 block demolished for a condominium project, and the 600 block demolished starting in the mid-1960s for Jones College Prep, you need to go further north for any of the few endangered remnants along South State Street.

Patrick Steffes

The only major remnant of the 1979 State Street Mall is this elevator to the CTA Red Line platform on the west side of South State Street along a now-vacated section of West Quincy Street. Seemingly not maintained in the 20 years since the State Street Mall was unceremoniously removed, this very 1970s design is, of course, visited on all Forgotten Chicago tours of the Loop.

Left: Hedrich-Blessing Collection, Chicago History Museum Right: Chicago Photographic Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago

Although not associated with South State Street’s colorful period of burlesque and vice, two buildings from the 1930s and 1940s remain extant as of this writing. Above is the former Benson & Rixon store by Alfred S. Alschuler with R.N. Friedman on South State Street just south of Quincy Court, opening in 1937. Signage on the Benson & Rixon store would change frequently; above right is a little-seen scheme with additional horizontal signage. The Bond Store was completed in 1949 and replaced a seemingly ancient relic that also housed a Bond Store above center, that appears to date from soon after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

bond-storeLeft: Chicago Tribune, 1949 Right: White Way Electrical Advertising Displays, 1963

Shown above is the 1949 former Bond Clothing store by Friedman, Alschuler & Sincere with Morris Lapidus, the genius of Miami Beach and perhaps the greatest storefront retail architect of the twentieth century. Remarkably, while both the former Benson & Rixon and Bond Store are along a street that has seen wholesale demolition over the past 50 years, these two adjacent landmarks remain mostly intact in 2016.

Chicago Tribune, 1952

The 1915 Neo-Manueline style Century Building by Holabird & Roche at the Southwest Corner of State and Adams was purchased by the early 1950s by Pilsen’s Home Federal Savings and Loan. Home Federal would thoroughly update the lobby and street level for its new home by an unknown architect, celebrating its grand opening on June 30, 1952, as seen in the image below.


Top: Realty & Building, 1952 Bottom: Patrick Steffes, September 2016

The Century / Home Federal Building has long been abandoned, and is now owned by the federal government. While this building once had a very period interior that is no longer accessible, its corner entrance survives nearly 65 years after its 1952 remodeling. For an appropriately dry and bureaucratic description of this remarkable building by its current landlord, the U.S. General Services Administration, click here.

Google Street View, 2014

While still somewhat common in outlying Chicago shopping districts, pre-World War II commercial storefronts are virtually non-existent in the central district and along State Street. Undoubtedly the best remnant in the Loop is the former Roberto’s clothing store at 214 South State, between Adams and Van Buren.

Designed by architect M. Louis Kroman for tenant Mitzi’s Frocks Dress Shop, this storefront was completed in 19353 and is nearly completely intact today. Kroman is best known as the architect of the exuberant Art Deco 1929 55th Ritz Garage in Hyde Park at the southwest corner of Lake Park Boulevard and East 55th Street. While the former Mitzi’s Frocks store is currently closed, its dramatic storefront can still be easily seen through a gate as of this writing.

Railroads, Chicago-style Tumblr

For a full appreciation of how South State Street between Polk and Jackson appeared before nearly all of its grittiness was removed, walk along the west side of the 400 block of South Clark Street, south of Van Buren and seen above left and almost unbelievably intact some 55 years after this photo was taken. The above image, dating from the early 1960s based on the 1961 Buick LeSabre seen third from left, shows all the same buildings that are still extant of this writing, south of the “L” and on the west side of Clark Street, although the signage is changed. The block on the right is now the the Metropolitan Correctional Center.

Visit the 400 block of South Clark Street while you can, as it was placed on Preservation Chicago’s 7 Most Endangered Buildings list in 2016. With an enviable location blocks from government and commercial office space, an transit-friendly location near CTA and Metra stations, and the curious security benefit of being across the street from a federal prison, this unique streetscape and collection of businesses may not be long for this world.

Chicago Tribune, 1948

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Harold Washington Library Center, if you live in Chicago and don’t already have a Chicago Public Library card, be sure to get one. With it, you have access to an incredible reseach database, including article and advertisement from the Chicago Tribune between 1849 to 1992, including the 1948 shenanigans at the Elk Hotel, seen in the image above at lower right. Your Chicago Public Library Card is an absolutely invaluable research tool as these articles, images and ads are easily saved as a PDF, and contain history and images not seen (or saved) anywhere else.

Many thanks to the outstanding staff of the Harold Washington Library Center, and the staff of all Chicago Public Library branches, who have been unfailingly helpful in this author’s research of the Chicago area’s overlooked and forgotten built environment including, of course, its flagship library.


1.John McCarron, Central library urged as last bargain at Goldblatt’s, Chicago Tribune,, December 29, 1981

2. Manuel Galvan and Jack Houston, Library bond issue advances: $175 million proposal approved by city council panel, Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1987

3. Mitzi Leases Entire Four Story State Street Building, Chicago Daily Tribune, July 14, 1935

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