On Omelets, Librarians, and Architects: A Brief History of the Newberry Building | Newberry

On Omelets, Librarians, and Architects: A Brief History of the Newberry Building

William Frederick Poole.

Photograph of William Frederick Poole. NL Archives, 15/01/01, Box 2.

Photograph of Henry Ives Cobb. NL Archives, 15/01/01, Box 1.

The Cobb building under construction, c. 1892. View from the southwest.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and William Frederick Poole couldn’t build his ideal library without demoralizing a young Chicago architect.

The Newberry Board of Trustees hired Poole as the library’s first librarian in 1887. Poole was one of the most respected—and vociferous—figures in his field, as well as an active historian: he continually and passionately argued to absolve Cotton Mather of any blame for the Salem Witch Trials.[1] By all accounts, Poole was a considerate man; and his contentious interactions with fellow librarians resulted less from cantankerousness than from a dogged determination and unflagging belief in his own ideas. Poole simply wore down his opponents, and in the early days of library science in America, he had more than a few.

While certain critics have portrayed the Newberry’s early history as a philanthropic expression of class privilege, an accumulation of precious materials to be kept far from the hands of the industrial masses,[2] Poole’s model library could actually be construed as the democratic alternative to the design espoused by his rival, Justin Winsor. In Poole’s view, a centralized storage system would separate patrons and books and produce a generation of venal gatekeeper-librarians; his Newberry would disperse its collection throughout a number of separate reading rooms, allowing readers greater access to the books they needed and keeping a cabal of librarians from consolidating power. (Over time it became clear that Poole’s vision was inordinately demanding on a library’s human resources, and the Newberry eventually adopted the more practical—and not at all maleficent, it turns out—centralized book storage system).

No doubt under Poole’s influence, the Newberry Board of Trustees in March 1888 appointed Henry Ives Cobb architect of the library’s new permanent home. Cobb was young—just 29 years old—and relatively unproven (although he was partner of the firm Cobb and Frost), and Poole believed he could be easily steamrolled. The librarian immediately sought to preempt what grand designs the architect might have had, and published his views on library design in a number of Chicago newspapers, to favorable reviews. When Cobb traveled across the country to conduct library-design research, Poole arranged for him to meet with the librarians who advocated his ideas, conspiring to neglect those who did not.

In February 1889, Cobb and Eliphalet W. Blatchford, President of the Newberry Board of Trustees, left on a four-month tour of European libraries, perhaps in large part to escape the heavy hand and bewhiskered visage of William Frederick Poole. Cobb returned with a commitment to grandiosity and monumentality, which directly conflicted with Poole’s famous dictum (rather grandiose itself), introduced at an 1881 meeting of the American Library Association: “Convenience and utility shall never yield to architectural effect.”[3] The two would launch a war of epistolary vitriol, jockeying for position with the Board of Trustees, until Poole hired another architect, W. A. Otis, to draw up competing plans in August. The trustees sensed an imminent public relations catastrophe, remembering the media savvy Poole displayed just a year earlier, and maneuvered to retain both Cobb’s appointment and Poole’s design.

The Newberry building would be completed in 1893, the year in which the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago brought Classical Greco-Roman architecture into civic vogue and immediately rendered what had become the library’s Romanesque façade out of fashion for the next several decades. Poole served as the Newberry’s librarian until his death in 1894. Cobb would later design another Chicago landmark, at 632 N. Dearborn, just a few blocks south of where the Newberry stands; the building is now home to Excalibur, “Chicago’s #1 Mega Club and Party Castle.”[4]

[1] Cotton Mather and Salem Witchcraft, 1869, for example.

[2] See Finkelman, Paul. “Class and Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century Chicago: The Founding of the Newberry Library.” American Studies 16 (Spring 1975): 5-22; also consider an episode of Mad Men in which Bert Cooper tells Don Draper that philanthropy is the “gateway to power.”

[3] Quoted from Wetherald, Houghton David. An Architectural History of the Newberry Library, 11.

[4] A self-description, from Excalibur’s official website.