After a long period of disinvestment and decline, Chicago’s first regional library is returning to prominence.

By Audrey Henderson

In 1916, Henry Legler, then the director of the Chicago Public Library (CPL) system, presented the board with a transformational proposal: a “Library Plan for the Whole City,” which called for five regional branch libraries and seventy local branches, for the purpose of putting a library facility within walking distance of every resident of the city of Chicago. It was an expansive, ambitious plan to democratize information access in the city. Legler died shortly thereafter, in 1917, but his idea had taken hold. The board moved forward with the plan, and when the first regional library opened, in 1920, they named it after him.

The Henry E. Legler Regional Library serves the West Side of Chicago, which includes the neighborhoods of Austin, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, South Lawndale, East Garfield Park and West Garfield Park, where Legler is located. There are now eighty CPL branches across the city of Chicago, including two additional regional libraries—Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, on the South Side, and Conrad Sulzer Regional Library, on the North Side. The main branch of the CPL system, Harold Washington Library Center, opened in 1991, and is located in the Loop, in the heart of Chicago’s downtown.

Nearly a hundred years after its initial construction, Legler is again at the center of the CPL conversation, thanks to an $11.5 million investment by the city of Chicago and the Illinois State Library system. Extensive renovations are planned beginning in late 2019, which will house a more extensive collection and state-of-the-art technology, including STEM-focused children’s facilities and a YOUMedia sound studio for teens. A new arts studio will be the first dedicated arts studio at a CPL location.

The renewed investment in the branch comes after a century of transformations in the local community. During the Great Migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow South, during the early and mid twentieth century, the South Side and West Side of Chicago were thriving. The West Side had a population of approximately one hundred and twenty thousand. Sears, Roebuck and Company had its world headquarters on Homan Avenue. Major companies like Western Electric, Goldblatt’s department store and Magickist carpet cleaners also had robust operations on the West Side, according to Rufus Williams, President and CEO of BBF Family Services.

In the meantime, the development of Chicago’s park system continued under the guidance of renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen, at the time the general superintendant of Chicago’s West Park Commission. Jensen oversaw the development of Garfield Park, which opened in 1905, and Garfield Park Conservatory, which opened in 1908. The Graemere, a high-class residential hotel which has since been demolished, opened just east of Garfield Park.

Up to the middle of the twentieth century, the population of the west side was nearly all white. In particular, North Lawndale became a Jewish enclave, while the residents of East Garfield Park were largely Irish and German. However, during the latter part of the century, both the west and south sides suffered dramatic disinvestment and decline, with population on the west side sliding to about thirty-six thousand. Several factors were to blame, but discriminatory housing regulations, along with redlining and blockbusting by unscrupulous real estate developers played an overwhelmingly significant role in the precipitous decline of the city’s south and west sides.

The construction of the Eisenhower Expressway during the 1950s sliced through the west side, displacing a multitude of residents. In the meantime, African American residents began spilling over into the west side from the vastly overcrowded south side and near west side where they had been hemmed in for decades. The migration of African Americans into the area triggered waves of white flight, which accelerated after the urban unrest that followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “When you look at these communities you can see vacant lots that have been vacant lots since April 5, 1968. And as all those businesses left, none were coming back, and it really became a forgotten place.” Williams said.

At the same time, Legler library suffered declining circulation over several decades, reflecting the disinvestment and socioeconomic challenges of its West Side location. Legler lost its regional library designation in 1977, although it remained open as a neighborhood library. Legler was granted historic landmark status in 1987, and renovated and rededicated in 1993. (The library also had structural and accessibility work done in 2017 and 2018, at a cost of about $913,000.) Legler regained its status as a regional library in spring 2019.

Throughout, the library also remained an important neighborhood anchor for residents like Valerie Leonard, whose late father Theodis R. Leonard was a teacher at John Milton Gregory Math and Science Academy (formerly John Milton Gregory Elementary School) during the 1960s and 1970s. “My dad used to take his students to Legler Library all the time to help them learn how to do research for Black History Month and the annual Science Fair. He encouraged them to use the Library like we talk about voting in Chicago –“early and often.” He would be proud to know the plans for improvement,” said Leonard, the founder of Nonprofit Utopia.

As an engaged North Lawndale resident, Leonard has worked with a number of activists on the West Side of Chicago to host town hall meetings on school closings, TIFs and economic development issues. Legler’s central location and large meeting spaces were ideal, but the lack of technology limited options for other activities, including podcasts and small group trainings. “At one point, when they had a central library downtown, there was some thought that (the distance) from the West Side to the Loop was close enough so that [there] wasn’t a need for that district library,” said Patrick Molloy, Director of Government and Public Affairs for CPL. “I don’t know that that’s necessarily true, especially now. I think there is a realization that even if circulation isn’t really high that you need to have a place (for a) community center, that library that is open seven days a week, that a (neighborhood) branch library isn’t able to serve.”

Leonard is especially encouraged by the expansion plans for the library. At the same time, she insists that the expansion should emphasize the library’s role as an anchor for the community. “The West Side has a dearth of arts and cultural outlets for our children. I am encouraged by the fact that there will be a focus on arts and cultural programming and plans for inter-generational activities for youth, adults and seniors. Hopefully, this will bring about a stronger sense of community, and ensure that the wonderful stories, and informal arts and culture will be passed down to the next generation, while the younger people share their knowledge of technology and the changing culture,” she said.

The renovation will be directed by the Public Building Commission of Chicago. Renovation plans are still in the design phase. Once the design is finalized, Legler will close for approximately one year for renovations. Staff members and programming will be temporarily relocated to neighborhood libraries in the region during construction. The projected reopening date for the renovated Legler library branch is the third quarter of 2020, Molloy said.

Funding for the renovation and expansion for the Legler branch was originally supposed to come from the sale of “Knowledge and Wonder,” a large mural by Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall. The mural was commissioned for $10,000 for the Legler branch, during its 1993 renovation, as part of the “Percent for Art” program that stipulated that one percent of the cost of municipal building renovation be devoted to public art displayed in the building. However, the plans to sell the mural, potentially valued at more than $10 million, ran into stiff opposition. One of the most vocal opponents of the sale was Kerry James Marshall himself. “I am certain they could get more money if they sold the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza,” Marshall was quoted by ARTnews as saying.

Because of the pushback, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel eventually canceled the plans to sell the artwork. The mural is presently in the possession of the Department of Cultural Affairs. However, it will be re-mounted in the Legler branch once the renovation is complete. “Part of this renovation will be relocating the artwork back in its original spot but in a much more secure way,” said Brian Bannon, former commissioner and CEO for CPL. “It’s a beautiful piece, but it was just bolted to the walls. Literally, the day that we announced that we were going to sell the painting people were touching it. So it’s going to be reinstalled but in a much more secure way so that it can be preserved, climate controlled, etc.”

Despite the challenges involved, with the planned renovation of Legler, and restoration of its original status as a regional library, Henry Legler’s goal of providing every citizen within the city of Chicago with convenient library access is coming closer to realization. “I think that one of the challenges that we have and with public libraries in general, especially in large urban areas is that we do so much but we’re something different to everyone,” Molloy said.

“And oftentimes people don’t think about the modern resources. They think about the transactional experience of the traditional library and I think they don’t realize how much learning is actually experiential in libraries—and how it’s a safe space, and it’s a space for people.”

Leonard agrees, stressing that the expanded programs of the library should include community organizers to work with the area’s schools, religious institutions, block clubs and law enforcement. “Together, with our schools, the library should be a town center of sorts,” she said, “being the hub of civic activity, a safe haven for our children and a resource for job seekers and budding entrepreneurs.” ■


*Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Brian Bannon as the commissioner and CEO of CPL. Bannon is no longer in the position, and has been replaced by Andrea Telli.



Audrey Henderson is a freelance writer based in the greater Chicago area. Her work has been featured in Next City, Chicago Architect magazine, Global Traveler and Transitions Abroad, along with trade and consumer print and online publications worldwide.

Cover image of the Legler building courtesy of the Public Building Commission of Chicago.

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