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Newberry Library shows off new renovations, Columbian Exposition exhibit

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The historic Gold Coast building is more bright, welcoming, and user-friendly than ever

Photos by Jay Koziarz

The Newberry Library, Chicago’s most famous independent research institution, is ready for the public to admire the fruits of a nine-month, $12.7 million renovation as well as a newly opened exhibit on the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Although the impressive 1893 neo-Romanesque structure from architect Henry Ives Cobb was always free and open to the public, the Newberry felt somewhat cut-off and intimidating to non-scholarly visitors. Its recent makeover, overseen by Boston-based Ann Beha Architects, aims to rehabilitate the space and its standoffish public perception.

The changes start outside at the building’s entrance where an imposing fence was removed and new landscaping added. Inside, the vestibules are well-lit and feature overhead art inspired by the library’s collection of rare maps, manuscripts, and postcards. Instead of first confronting a lobby security desk, guests can now proceed to the library’s first ever welcome center to find their bearing with the help of attentive staff.

The main-floor improvements highlight the old building’s original architectural details such as its restored tile mosaic floors and Corinthian-capped columns. The work creates new guest amenities such as a lounge area with seating and free self-serve coffee stations and an expanded bookstore. In addition to its reconfigured event spaces and conference rooms, the privately-funded rehab includes two public galleries to display both permanent and temporary exhibitions.

Starting this weekend, the space will host Pictures from an Exposition: Visualizing the 1893 World’s Fair—an impressive collection of historic photographs, drawings, maps, postcards, and souvenirs from Jackson Park’s legendary White City. The timing corresponds with the 125th anniversary of the fair as well as the dedication of the current Newberry building. It will be on display through December 31.

A neighboring gallery features an exhibit titled From the Stacks that showcases some of the library’s most treasured items from its permanent collection, which includes Chicago’s sole copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, original letters belonging to Alexander Hamilton, and copies of the Federalist papers with annotations by Thomas Jefferson. The items on display here will rotate several times each year, according to the library.

The Newberry is open Tuesday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The granite-clad structure at 50 W. Walton Street will be open late until to 5 p.m. on Saturday October 13 for the Chicago Architecture Center’s annual Open House Chicago event.