Preserving stonework of an institution
Considered a historic landmark, Chicago’s Newberry Library recently was revitalized to restore existing stonework and revamp its interior space to better meet the needs of its visitors
Founded on July 1, 1887, as the result of a bequest by Chicago businessman Walter L. Newberry, the Newberry Library — a world-renowned independent research library offering an extensive non-circulating collection of rare books, maps, music, manuscripts and other printed material spanning six centuries — has a long history. Between 1887 and 1893, the library moved to three different locations in Chicago, IL. But in 1889, it went to its final home when the trustees acquired property on West Walton Place — directly across the street from Washington Square Park, also known as Bughouse Square. Only a few blocks west of the famous Michigan Avenue, the Newberry Library is situated in a beautiful and vibrant neighborhood known as the Gold Coast, which is brimming with a selection of restaurants, shops and nightlife. In an effort to revitalize the building’s beautiful stone architecture and update its layout to be more visitor friendly, a two-year restoration and renovation project was recently completed with the assistance of the design team from Ann Beha Architects (ABA) of Boston, MA.
The Newberry Library was originally designed by notable Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb in the Romanesque Revival style. Its first librarian, William Frederick Poole, was a leading figure in the library world. Under Poole’s leadership, the library purchased 25,000 books in its first year and a half of its existence; by 1894 the year of Poole’s death, it had a collection numbering 120,000 volumes and 44,000 pamphlets. Poole and Cobb disagreed vigorously about the arrangement of the library’s interior spaces. Poole’s vision won out, however, and as a consequence, the new structure contained smaller reading rooms with specific collections in close proximity to library staff possessing relevant expertise, and no central bookstack. Cobb’s vision defined the exterior, which was clad with Stony Creek granite, a pink-colored material quarried in Branford, CT. The addition of a bookstack tower in 1982 eventually provided environmentally secure conditions for the collections and enabled the building to be refitted for staff activities and a broader assortment of public programming, which soon followed.
The design team at ABA included Steven Gerrard, principal-in-charge; Ann M. Beha, collaborating principal; and Ian Miller, project manager. “ABA was selected by the Newberry to guide the renovations of the entrance levels and to plan the long-term space utilization of the entire library building,” said the design team. “The renovation project focused on transforming public spaces to provide an inviting and engaging arrival experience and to showcase the library’s collections and identity. The first floor’s historic spaces were restored — enhancing their rich character and detail. New spaces were provided for welcoming and orienting visitors, state-of-the-art exhibitions, an improved bookstore, new flexible event rooms and classrooms.”
Respecting the original design
The Newberry Library is part of the Washington Square District, and historic attributes of this project needed to be reviewed by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, explained the design team. The Commission reviews all permit applications for alteration, construction, reconstruction, erection, demolition, relocation or other work for any area, district, place, building, structure, work of art, or other object that is a designated Chicago landmark or which is located within a designated or proposed Chicago Landmark District. These points had to be taken into consideration before the restoration and renovation of the library commenced.
“ABA’s design needed to respect the library’s architectural heritage while addressing issues of welcome balanced with security for both occupants and collections,” said the team. “Universal accessibility was also key. The project focused on transforming public spaces to provide an inviting and engaging arrival experience and to showcase the library’s collections and identity. Programmatic needs required that we revisit exhibition approaches, arrival and welcome areas (interior and exterior) and amenities.”
During multiple site visits, the ABA team; Bulley & Andrews, the construction manager for the project; and Chicago-based Murphy Marble, the stone subcontractor; reviewed extant stone. It was determined that the exterior Stony Creek granite, which was used for original pavers at the entry and an existing stone bench, needed to be cleaned to remove metallic stains. Matching exterior granite was not challenging, according to the design team. The exterior work included the removal of a fence and the addition of two new Stony Creek granite benches. A new walkway, also built of Stony Creek granite from the original quarry, now provides visitor access to an ADA lift.
The library’s existing vestibule was a generous barrel vaulted room with a grand staircase. The walls were clad in figured brown marble original to the Cobb design. “Although rich in texture and color, the overall impression of the space was unwelcoming and forbidding,” said the ABA team, who proposed a number of modifications, including replacing some of the marble with glass panels, to make the space more open and inviting.
The Newberry’s first-floor lobby was designed to serve as both a central thoroughfare of the library and frequently used event space. The lobby configuration was dominated by the security desk/gate and provided minimal wayfinding assistance to arriving visitors. These barriers impeded the public’s engagement with the library. Some of the original historic character of the space was intact; however, because much of the interior stone, including white-gray marble wainscoting, black soapstone wall base and Corinthian pilaster capitals, had been removed from the lobby in the 1940s, the space lacked the richness visible in the historic photos. Replacing these elements was a key design move.
The team identified extant sections of original stonework for later matching. Matching the black soapstone base was not too difficult, nor was matching the white-gray marble to reestablished the datum throughout the lobby and adjacent passage gallery. The team was able to remove and reuse matching marble that had been installed during an earlier renovation. Several windows, originally cased in wood, had been recased in matching marble sometime after the completion of the building. Any missing marble was replaced with matching honed (800 grit) white Carrara marble.
All existing interior marble was cleaned, including the marble floor. “The original floor of the lobby was inspired by Roman (Pompeiian) tesseract mosaics; its regular patterns composed of irregularly placed stone tiles,” explained the design team. “The floor showed significant wear and damage in areas; damage was particularly notable at the entryway. We wanted to honor the age and history of the space, but bring back the floor’s luster.” To restore the mosaic, the team first cleaned the tile and grout and carefully removed tiles from damaged or deteriorated areas. Marble tiles in good condition were salvaged and reserved for reinstallation. The team then matched and replaced existing stones, patterns and mortar to preserve the patina of age.
“Matching the tiles for the tesseract mosaic floor was difficult and required review of several mock-ups to compare marble and grout to existing floor,” explained the team. After selection of matching mustard, red and white tiles, the team used tea staining to “age” the tile.
Multiple mock-ups of the stone mosaic tile floors were examined during site visits. “The mortar was challenging,” said the design team. “It wasn’t possible to match the aged mortar, but we also didn’t want bright new mortar disturbing the historic patina of the floor. An exact match wasn’t possible, but through mock-ups, a reasonable match was obtained.”
The team noted that there was one significant cleaning challenge on the first floor. “Wide expanses of marble slab floor in office spaces on the west end of the first floor had been covered with carpet,” they said. “After pulling up the carpet, removing adhesive was a challenge and some of the slabs had been damaged over the years.” After cleaning, any variegated marble that needed replacing was laid in planks. The best match for what became the west Program Rooms, Thematic Gallery and Story Gallery was figured slabs of Montclair Danby marble. Highly veined and sparsely veined slabs were used to patch the floor appropriately to match existing composition. Vermont marble was also used in the Seminar Room, east toilet rooms and adjoining corridor.
Finding replacement stone
Supplying and replacing the stone for the library was the job of Murphy Marble Co. “My brother, Michael Van Etten, worked on the project, and I helped source materials,” said Susan Van Etten, co-owner of the family operated company. “We were familiar with the stone types from our experience and knowledge of the stone used in that time period — the late 1800s. We have a large stock in our yard that we have collected over the years, as well as working with slab warehouses and suppliers.
“I reviewed slabs with the architect when they came in from Boston at some slab warehouses in Chicago,” Susan Van Etten continued. “Michael and I have both been to the quarry in Vermont for some other projects, which is a very cool interesting underground quarry, but in this case, we brought slabs in. We did not need to go to the quarry. The same with the Carrara marble. Some was from our stock and some came from local warehouses in Chicago. We did hand hone finishing in our shop to match the finish that was on the original walls in the library. Overall, it was unique working with over a 100-year-old blending, mixing in new stone to match existing and deciding which pieces needed to be removed, replaced and reworked. We patched some existing stone trim. There were some fragile pieces, which we were careful not to break or damage. Other challenges were the angles on the light fixtures recessed into the new granite landing at the front entrance.”
As for the Stony Creek granite, Michael Van Etten explained that they found the name of the stone in an old article they came across about the history of the Newberry Library. Blocks were brought in from a supplier on the East Coast.
“This project was a challenge for Murphy Marble, but also a very fulfilling privilege to be able to help Bulley & Andrews restore a beautiful landmark building in Chicago,” said Michael Van Etten. “We had to remove selected portions of marble walls/flooring and then rework and/or reinstall them with the existing marble, marble from building’s stock or new marble to match existing. Glenn Pierce and all of the Bulley & Andrews were all very diligent in their work on this project and were very helpful and professional throughout to get this project completed.”
The new design
A part of the design objective was to make a warm and inviting atmosphere in the public areas for the library’s visitors, while still maintaining the building’s existing architecture. “On the exterior, our approach included using new stone elements to create a more inviting entryway,” the ABA team continued. “The top step of the approach stair, which was previously difficult to navigate while opening the door, was replaced and extended with matching granite. Iron fencing flanking the entrance was removed and a new granite walkway, accessibility ramp, granite benches and lighting was installed.”
“Inside, new design interventions are clearly contemporary but understated, with a simple material palette in dialogue with historic features,” explained the design team. “New energy efficient lighting highlights the historic spaces and allows the architectural details to shine through in a new way. Updated building systems and technology are carefully integrated to be hidden and sustainable. The millwork at the security desk and welcome center is new, but matches the original casework. Countertops of honed white Carrara marble complement white-gray marble used in original construction.
The restoration and renovation of the Newberry Library began in April of 2016 and was completed by August of 2018. It is the winner of the 2019 AIA Illinois Crombie Taylor Award for a project that, through preservation and restoration, has enhanced the natural and built environment of a community. Additionally, it was the winner of the 2019 Chicago Building Congress Award for Renovation & Adaptive Reuse Under $10 Million.
The Newberry Library
Original Architect: Henry Ives Cobb
Restoration Architect: Ann Beha Architects (ABA), Boston, MA
Construction Manager: Bulley & Andrews, Chicago, IL
Stone Subcontractor: Galloy & Van Etten, Inc. / Murphy Marble Co., Chicago, IL