Serving not only as a community library for the Loop, the Harold Washington Library exists as a hub for the citywide network of regional libraries all across Chicago. Earlier this week, the flagship downtown facility officially opened its new Thomas Hughes Children’s Library—a 25,000-square-foot space designed by the Chicago office of global design and architecture firm Gensler.
The reimagined space includes a centralized “plaza” for families with children of various ages to gather as well as three distinct “neighborhoods.” Featuring not only traditional library services but curated collections of games, hands-on activities, and multimedia tools, these areas are designed to cater to specific age groups.
A section devoted to promoting early literacy is provided for the Thomas Hughes Children’s Library’s youngest visitors. Elementary school aged children have access to so-called Maker Lab activities designed to encourage hands-on learning. Older tweens are provided the use of laptops, digital cameras, and blue screen virtual reality tools focused on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) programming.
Gensler’s makeover also uncovered original windows to let in more natural light and installed new furniture rendered in Chicago’s official color scheme. The modular pieces can be reconfigured, allowing greater flexibility within the space. Working with a moderate renovation budget, the design team aimed to create an environment that allows young visitors to pursue individual interests and curiosities.
“Conceived under the CPL’s vision of ‘home of the curious,’ we saw this project as an ‘empty box,’” explained Brian Vitale, principal and design director at Gensler Chicago. “These two drivers allowed the design team to create a very flexible exploration space that pulls out the imagination of a young child when confronted with an empty box and the opportunities that the blank canvas can provide.”
The Thomas Hughes Children’s Library is expected to serve as a model for other Chicago Public Library branches across the city, including plans to co-locate new CPL locations and mixed-income housing in three architecturally-significant developments slated for the Irving Park, West Ridge, and Little Italy neighborhoods.