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A large postmodern structure with a brick facade with oversized arched windows and a green copper roof with ornamental details.
The Loop’s Harold Washington Library was completed in 1991.
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13 beautiful, historic public libraries in Chicago

From Beaux-Arts beauties to modern masterpieces

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The Loop’s Harold Washington Library was completed in 1991.
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Since its humble beginnings as a reading room inside a repurposed water tower tank in 1873, the Chicago Public Library system has sprouted 81 branches. Throughout its history, the CPL has occupied a variety of architecturally significant from Art Deco and modern. In fact, the Chicago Cultural Center, an elaborate Neoclassical building, was actually the city’s very first public library.

In recent years, Chicago libraries have become more than just community spaces. Last year, the city built three new public library and affordable housing developments. A handsome West Loop library gave new purpose to a former Harpo Studios building. Plus, Mayor Lightfoot has eliminated book fines and expanded hours making the city’s libraries even more accessible.

These 13 libraries represent a sample of the system’s historic architecture and innovative new designs.

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1. Henry E. Legler Regional Library

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115 S Pulaski Rd
Chicago, IL 60624
(312) 746-7730
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The Henry E. Legler building dates back to 1920 and was designed in the Beaux-Arts style by architect Alfred S. Alschuler. Due to an ongoing renovation, the West Garfield Park location is currently closed. When it reopens, the facility will regain its status as the West Side’s regional library—a designation it lost in 1977 due to declining circulation. City officials originally hoped to fund Legler’s ongoing renovations through the sale of a Kerry James Marshall painting hanging inside the library. After facing public backlash, they eventually reconsidered, and the artwork will remain at the West Side library.

2. Independence Library

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4024 N Elston Ave
Chicago, IL 60618
(312) 744-0900
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In 2017, then Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a plan to build three new branch libraries that would be “co-located” with affordable and Chicago Housing Authority apartments. The Independence Branch, situated at the intersection of Elston and Pulaski in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood, comes from John Ronan Architects. The colorful inset balconies are meant to provide residence with a sense of identity, allowing them to point out where they live on street level. The design challenges the bland cookie-cutter public housing complexes of the past.

An exterior angle of a five-story library building with a gray lower level and a corrugated upper mass with multicolored inset balconies. Photo courtesy James Florio

3. Northtown Library

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6800 N Western Ave
Chicago, IL 60645
(312) 744-2292
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Global firm Perkins+Will designed this second Chicago library project to incorporate affordable housing—in this case, 44 senior housing units. The four-story Northtown Branch opened in March 2019 and serves the West Ridge and West Rogers Park neighborhoods on the city’s North Side. The space features a bright mural by local artist Chris Silva and a design lab complete with drafting software and 3D printers.

4. Conrad Sulzer Regional Library 

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4455 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60625
(312) 744-7616
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Before Hammond Beeby and Babka created downtown’s Harold Washington Library, the architectural firm designed the Sulzer Regional Library on the city’s North Side in 1985. Named for Conrad Sulzer, an early settler in the area, the building features a postmodern style that drew on inspiration from German neoclassical architecture in a nod to the area’s German-American heritage. A $5 million project updated the Lincoln Square structure by performing facade repairs and adding new windows and skylights.

5. Little Italy Library

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1336 W Taylor St
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 746-5656
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The third library-meets-housing developments is the Little Italy Branch Library and Taylor Street Apartments. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) designed this project as a new community hub for the neighborhood. The apartments are set back from the street creating a new public space and preserving the community garden Taylor Street Farms.

Stacks of shelves in a bright, modern-looking space under an orange ceiling. Courtesy of Related Midwest, Tyler Lundberg

6. West Loop Library

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122 N Aberdeen St
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 744-2995
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SOM was also behind the new West Loop library, which opened in early 2019. The complex spans two older buildings that once belonged to Oprah Winfrey’s former Harpo Studios television production campus. The adaptive reuse project uncovered and restored a number of the original architectural features, including brick walls and bow-truss ceiling beams, and unified the buildings behind a weathered steel facade.

A bow-truss building with exposed ceiling timbers filled with bookshelves, large tables, and padded stools. Tom Harris, courtesy SOM

7. Carter G. Woodson Regional Library

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9525 S Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60628
(312) 747-6900
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This regional library serving Chicago’s South Side opened in 1975 and honors Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who is credited with starting a 1926 movement that eventually grew into the nationally observed Black History Month. The facility is home to the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection—named for Chicago’s first black librarian—and is the largest collection of African American history and literature in the Midwest. In 2018, the Woodson Regional Library reopened after an 18-month, $9 million renovation funding new study rooms, an early learning play space, and services such as the city’s Teacher in the Library program and YOUmedia.

8. Chinatown Library

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2100 S Wentworth Ave
Chicago, IL 60616
(312) 747-8013
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When it opened in 2015, the new Chinatown library challenged the notion of what a CPL branch should look like. The elliptical, lantern-like design from Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM) features a glass and metal exterior and a 16,000-square-foot interior that references traditional Feng Shui design cues.

A glassy, oval-shaped library with vertical metal fins. There is a road and sidewalk in the foreground. Getty Images/iStockphoto

9. Harold Washington Library

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Harold Washington Library, 400 S State St
Chicago, IL 60605
(312) 747-4300
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After the original central library building became the Chicago Cultural Center in 1977, the Chicago Public Library system needed a new downtown hub to serve its network of regional and branch libraries. A permanent replacement arrived in 1991 with the opening of the Loop’s Harold Washington Library. Architecture firm Hammond, Beeby and Babka designed the massive 756,000-square-foot structure in the postmodern style with playful inspiration from historic Chicago buildings. As the city’s largest library, Harold Washington has to plenty offer, including a skylight-topped winter garden on its ninth floor and the Thomas Hughes Children’s Library which opened in 2017.

A metal and glass ceiling of a wintergarden. There are light fixtures hanging down above planted indoor trees. Shutterstock

10. Chicago Bee Library

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3647 S State St
Chicago, IL 60609
(312) 747-6872
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Another notable location is Bronzeville’s Chicago Bee Library. Constructed between 1929 and 1932 by architect Z. Erol Smith, the Art Deco structure originally housed apartments as well as the offices of the Douglass National Bank, the Overton Hygienic Company, and the Chicago Bee newspaper before becoming a CPL branch in 1996. In 2018, the city completed a $2.32 million renovation that added new furniture, media equipment, and an early learning play space. The project also repaired the terracotta exterior storefront to its original appearance.

11. Whitney M. Young Jr. Library

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415 E 79th St
Chicago, IL 60619
(312) 747-0039
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Many Chicago Public Library buildings received improvements in recent years, but few projects compare to the major changes at the Whitney M. Young Jr. Branch in South Side neighborhood of Chatham. Here, a $12 million gut-rehab incorporated and expanded the exterior walls of the existing 1972 structure into what is essentially an all-new building. The bKL-designed project created a new courtyard space, improved accessibility, and brought new amenities to Whitney M. Young—like new computers, meeting rooms, a recording studio, and a fabrication lab with 3D printers.

A modern single-story building with a glassy corner on a streetscape with a tree and pedestrians walking by. Courtesy bKL Architecture

12. T. B. Blackstone Memorial Library

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4904 S Lake Park Ave
Chicago, IL 60615
(312) 747-0511
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This historic Kenwood library was founded in 1904 and is considered to be the Chicago Public Library system’s first neighborhood branch. Designed by Chicago architect Solon S. Beman, the neoclassical building is modeled after the Erechtheion, a temple on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. It includes stained-glass ceilings, mosaic tile floors, carved marble details, mahogany paneling, and an impressive domed rotunda.

13. Obama Presidential Center Library

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5800 S Cornell Dr
Chicago, IL 60637

CPL’s next new branch will essentially be a library within a library once it opens on the campus of the planned Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. The upcoming South Side location will join other public amenities such as athletic fields, a recording studio, and a community garden, aimed at making the Obama Center more than just a repository for presidential records. Work on the project, designed by New York-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, has yet to begin—delayed by a federal review and a legal challenge to the center’s controversial location within a public park.

A rendering of a bright library space with children sitting around a teacher reading a book. Rendering courtesy Obama Foundation

1. Henry E. Legler Regional Library

115 S Pulaski Rd, Chicago, IL 60624

The Henry E. Legler building dates back to 1920 and was designed in the Beaux-Arts style by architect Alfred S. Alschuler. Due to an ongoing renovation, the West Garfield Park location is currently closed. When it reopens, the facility will regain its status as the West Side’s regional library—a designation it lost in 1977 due to declining circulation. City officials originally hoped to fund Legler’s ongoing renovations through the sale of a Kerry James Marshall painting hanging inside the library. After facing public backlash, they eventually reconsidered, and the artwork will remain at the West Side library.

115 S Pulaski Rd
Chicago, IL 60624

2. Independence Library

4024 N Elston Ave, Chicago, IL 60618
An exterior angle of a five-story library building with a gray lower level and a corrugated upper mass with multicolored inset balconies. Photo courtesy James Florio

In 2017, then Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a plan to build three new branch libraries that would be “co-located” with affordable and Chicago Housing Authority apartments. The Independence Branch, situated at the intersection of Elston and Pulaski in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood, comes from John Ronan Architects. The colorful inset balconies are meant to provide residence with a sense of identity, allowing them to point out where they live on street level. The design challenges the bland cookie-cutter public housing complexes of the past.

4024 N Elston Ave
Chicago, IL 60618

3. Northtown Library

6800 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60645

Global firm Perkins+Will designed this second Chicago library project to incorporate affordable housing—in this case, 44 senior housing units. The four-story Northtown Branch opened in March 2019 and serves the West Ridge and West Rogers Park neighborhoods on the city’s North Side. The space features a bright mural by local artist Chris Silva and a design lab complete with drafting software and 3D printers.

6800 N Western Ave
Chicago, IL 60645

4. Conrad Sulzer Regional Library 

4455 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60625

Before Hammond Beeby and Babka created downtown’s Harold Washington Library, the architectural firm designed the Sulzer Regional Library on the city’s North Side in 1985. Named for Conrad Sulzer, an early settler in the area, the building features a postmodern style that drew on inspiration from German neoclassical architecture in a nod to the area’s German-American heritage. A $5 million project updated the Lincoln Square structure by performing facade repairs and adding new windows and skylights.

4455 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60625

5. Little Italy Library

1336 W Taylor St, Chicago, IL 60607
Stacks of shelves in a bright, modern-looking space under an orange ceiling. Courtesy of Related Midwest, Tyler Lundberg

The third library-meets-housing developments is the Little Italy Branch Library and Taylor Street Apartments. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) designed this project as a new community hub for the neighborhood. The apartments are set back from the street creating a new public space and preserving the community garden Taylor Street Farms.

1336 W Taylor St
Chicago, IL 60607

6. West Loop Library

122 N Aberdeen St, Chicago, IL 60607
A bow-truss building with exposed ceiling timbers filled with bookshelves, large tables, and padded stools. Tom Harris, courtesy SOM

SOM was also behind the new West Loop library, which opened in early 2019. The complex spans two older buildings that once belonged to Oprah Winfrey’s former Harpo Studios television production campus. The adaptive reuse project uncovered and restored a number of the original architectural features, including brick walls and bow-truss ceiling beams, and unified the buildings behind a weathered steel facade.

122 N Aberdeen St
Chicago, IL 60607

7. Carter G. Woodson Regional Library

9525 S Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60628

This regional library serving Chicago’s South Side opened in 1975 and honors Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who is credited with starting a 1926 movement that eventually grew into the nationally observed Black History Month. The facility is home to the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection—named for Chicago’s first black librarian—and is the largest collection of African American history and literature in the Midwest. In 2018, the Woodson Regional Library reopened after an 18-month, $9 million renovation funding new study rooms, an early learning play space, and services such as the city’s Teacher in the Library program and YOUmedia.

9525 S Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60628

8. Chinatown Library

2100 S Wentworth Ave, Chicago, IL 60616
A glassy, oval-shaped library with vertical metal fins. There is a road and sidewalk in the foreground. Getty Images/iStockphoto

When it opened in 2015, the new Chinatown library challenged the notion of what a CPL branch should look like. The elliptical, lantern-like design from Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM) features a glass and metal exterior and a 16,000-square-foot interior that references traditional Feng Shui design cues.

2100 S Wentworth Ave
Chicago, IL 60616

9. Harold Washington Library

Harold Washington Library, 400 S State St, Chicago, IL 60605
A metal and glass ceiling of a wintergarden. There are light fixtures hanging down above planted indoor trees. Shutterstock

After the original central library building became the Chicago Cultural Center in 1977, the Chicago Public Library system needed a new downtown hub to serve its network of regional and branch libraries. A permanent replacement arrived in 1991 with the opening of the Loop’s Harold Washington Library. Architecture firm Hammond, Beeby and Babka designed the massive 756,000-square-foot structure in the postmodern style with playful inspiration from historic Chicago buildings. As the city’s largest library, Harold Washington has to plenty offer, including a skylight-topped winter garden on its ninth floor and the Thomas Hughes Children’s Library which opened in 2017.

Harold Washington Library, 400 S State St
Chicago, IL 60605

10. Chicago Bee Library

3647 S State St, Chicago, IL 60609

Another notable location is Bronzeville’s Chicago Bee Library. Constructed between 1929 and 1932 by architect Z. Erol Smith, the Art Deco structure originally housed apartments as well as the offices of the Douglass National Bank, the Overton Hygienic Company, and the Chicago Bee newspaper before becoming a CPL branch in 1996. In 2018, the city completed a $2.32 million renovation that added new furniture, media equipment, and an early learning play space. The project also repaired the terracotta exterior storefront to its original appearance.

3647 S State St
Chicago, IL 60609

11. Whitney M. Young Jr. Library

415 E 79th St, Chicago, IL 60619
A modern single-story building with a glassy corner on a streetscape with a tree and pedestrians walking by. Courtesy bKL Architecture

Many Chicago Public Library buildings received improvements in recent years, but few projects compare to the major changes at the Whitney M. Young Jr. Branch in South Side neighborhood of Chatham. Here, a $12 million gut-rehab incorporated and expanded the exterior walls of the existing 1972 structure into what is essentially an all-new building. The bKL-designed project created a new courtyard space, improved accessibility, and brought new amenities to Whitney M. Young—like new computers, meeting rooms, a recording studio, and a fabrication lab with 3D printers.

415 E 79th St
Chicago, IL 60619

12. T. B. Blackstone Memorial Library

4904 S Lake Park Ave, Chicago, IL 60615

This historic Kenwood library was founded in 1904 and is considered to be the Chicago Public Library system’s first neighborhood branch. Designed by Chicago architect Solon S. Beman, the neoclassical building is modeled after the Erechtheion, a temple on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. It includes stained-glass ceilings, mosaic tile floors, carved marble details, mahogany paneling, and an impressive domed rotunda.

4904 S Lake Park Ave
Chicago, IL 60615

13. Obama Presidential Center Library

5800 S Cornell Dr, Chicago, IL 60637
A rendering of a bright library space with children sitting around a teacher reading a book. Rendering courtesy Obama Foundation

CPL’s next new branch will essentially be a library within a library once it opens on the campus of the planned Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. The upcoming South Side location will join other public amenities such as athletic fields, a recording studio, and a community garden, aimed at making the Obama Center more than just a repository for presidential records. Work on the project, designed by New York-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, has yet to begin—delayed by a federal review and a legal challenge to the center’s controversial location within a public park.

5800 S Cornell Dr
Chicago, IL 60637