Checking out the new Illinois State Library
January 11, 1990
As a Springfield boy I was blessed to have near at hand four libraries, which is about three more than most Downstate cities its size. One of them, the Illinois State Library, was housed on the third floor of the then-Centennial Building. Like the Carnegie-funded building that housed Springfield's public library, the Lincoln Library, the state library space offered more columns and arches and vaulted ceilings than space for storing and using books.
When the old Lincoln Library was replaced, its architects, under orders, went much too far in the direction of practicality. The new state library building, reviewed here, struck a better balance between architectural identity and public purpose. Rereading my review today, I see I was over-critical. Anything the state erects in the Capitol Complex that isn't an abomination should have been celebrated.
Note: The new building was later named the Geraldine Brooks Building, after the fine Chicago poet, although the institution housed in it remains the Illinois State Library.
It is typical of the confusion of the times that the newest state government building being constructed in Springfield at the moment is also the oldest. The new state library at Second and Monroe is novel for its lack of novelty. Like its cousins elsewhere in the capitol complex, it is clad in limestone; the building's main facade features a row of twin Doric columns that stretch across an arcaded podium made of "rusticated" or rough-hewn stone with matched pavilions on each end. It has an atrium—is there so much as a tree house or garden shed being built anywhere these days that doesn't?—but it is discreetly recessed between the library's office and book storage sections.
In style the new library is stripped-down Neo-classicism, what we might.call post-Reagan Nostalgic. The state library was designed by the Chicago firm of Graham Anderson Probst & White, but the real architect was Jim Edgar. It is a bold leap into the past, a reversion to the imitation Greek and Roman temples that for so long supplied the models for public buildings in the U.S. Blending monumentality and pretension (and cost overruns) Neo-classicism gave us our ideas of how courthouses and city halls and libraries and banks (which are, after all, arms of the government in this country) ought to look like.
In a statement describing the project, the firm complains that the visual harmony of the statehouse complex has been "endangered by the inclusion of a few modem, contextually unbalanced structures." The new library thus aims to be un-modern and contextually balanced—meaning it won't stick out among the Capitol and its companion structures such as the Centennial and Supreme Court buildings (1918 and 1908 respectively) and the state armory (1936).
This is urbanism of a very low order. The Edgarian ideal apparently is a government complex in which everything "matches," like a bedroom suite. The building at Monroe and College that houses Play It Again Sam's bar is not intrusive because it is modern but because it is banal; the modernist Attorney General's building and Illinois Bar Center in turn are impeccably respectful of context, being consistent with their neighbors in material and scale and setback distances.
The architects do not identify which structures displease them, but anyone in Springfield can guess they mean the Stratton Building. But building a lesser Centennial Building is not the only alternative to building another Stratton Building; we could have tried to build a better Stratton Building. No one dare risk that (especially no one who wants to be elected governor) so soon after the fiasco of the State of Illinois Center in Chicago. In a way, a retreat to Neo-classicism for the library is at least historically apt. That style arose at a time when cultures had run out of ideas about how to depict their institutions architecturally, and so borrowed those of the Greeks and Romans; having exhausted Modernism, we find ourselves similarly strapped.
So it's full-speed ahead to the past. Graham Anderson et al praise the Centennial Building in particular as an "outstanding" Beaux Arts design. The main reading room of the old library, which is housed on the Centennial's third floor, is an admirable space. The new building will also have an airy reading room (now referred to inevitably as an information center) on its second floor and its north-south atrium found its inspiration in the monumental hall in the old building known as the Hall of Hags. The new building should be an improvement over the old one in that particular at least. The old hall is described as a vestibule but isn't really, and it has always been rather dark; the new atrium should be an improvement both functionally and aesthetically.
In certain of its external features the new library borrows as much from the Supreme Court Building as from the Centennial. Not enough, I'm afraid; details such as the carved stone balustrade atop the cornice and ornamental grills on the windows, and stonework on the window pediments are missing. Our leaders have not lost their pretensions but grandeur has become unaffordable.
There is a precedent for aping these monuments to cheap skilled labor. The Armory and Archives did it a half-century ago. But these projects, while limited to Neo-classic design elements, nevertheless subtly rearranged them in their own ways. They thus added to the architecture of the Capitol complex, if only modestly; the new library merely extends it.
A big building can be looked at in several ways. The public is usually concerned with how it looks. The library staff will judge it by how it works. Critics and historians will be interested in what it means. This last is not a frivolous question, although it often gets very frivolous answers. How we house our institutions reveals a lot about how we see them. A certain monumentality is expected in a library, and is appropriate in a repository of the culture. But while we may agree that a library ought not to look like an airport terminal or a parking garage, it is just as absurd for a new state library to look like an old state office building. In choosing a design that is utterly anonymous, one whose chief virtue is not only that it doesn't offend but doesn't risk offending, Edgar revealed his sense of the library as an archival institution rather than activist. A state's library, I can't help wishing, ought to demand a certain attention, and assert an identity beyond being just a pretty box to store books in.
Respect for the past can look a lot like uncertainty about the future. Chicago Tribune critic Paul Gapp asked about the design for that city's new main looks-like-a-library-ought-to-look library building, "Is it aesthetically valid for a 1988 building to look like an 1888 building?" His question is even more pertinent to the new state library, because Graham Anderson Probst & White's appropriation of historical forms is even more literal than that of Thomas Beeby, who designed the new Chicago main library building. Gapp complained that Beeby had "turned his back on too much," namely the whole of Modernist architecture. The Modernist era is our history, all the history most of us will ever know. The anti-historicism that is part of the Modernists' need is now revenging itself on the very movement they advanced. The ultimate modernist building in the 1990s will be the one that has no trace of the modem in it.
The state library thus may be enjoyed by the cognoscenti as an in-joke, a building so out of it that it's hip. Unlike Beeby's library, unfortunately, this one's embrace of the past lacks enthusiasm. Like Edgar, it is respectful of the past as much from lack of imagination as a sense of tradition. The problem is that banality rendered in limestone is no more inspiring than banality done in plate glass. It just lasts longer. ●