Blackstone Branch, Chicago Public Libraries. Celebrating its Centennial

A service of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference and its website, Help support HPKCC's work: Join the Conference! And join Friends of Blackstone-see contacts below.

History and Preservation home page. Visit the Friends of Blackstone Library page.

Blackstone Branch Library received city of Chicago landmark designation from City Council December 8, 2010.

Friends of Blackstone Library meets first Wednesdays, 6 pm, at the Library. President Brenda Sawyer.


Blackstone Centennial Celebration September 18 2004
Event speakers included State Representative and Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, Chicago Public Library Region Manager Ken Jones, Hyde Park Historical Society Archivist Stephen Treffman. We had music with the Hyde Park Youth Symphony Orchestra Chamber Ensemble and the inimitable Jesse Scinto, cake, face painting, balloons, entertainment, a treasure hunt, and prizes. Hyde Park writer Jenny Schroedel, author of "The Blackbird's Nest: St. Kevin of Ireland" published by Saint Valdimir's Seminary Press conducted a make-your-own-picture book workshop for children. The Friends of the Blackstone Branch Library of the Chicago Public Library continues to conduct a membership drive including with commemorative t-shirts at $10
designed by local artist Gregor Sosnowski. Proceeds go to the branch library itself and FOB library development. For information, contact Dina Weinstein. (773) 643-6045. Top

A treasure in our midst

Blackstone Library had a centennial kickoff reception in February, 2004. This featured a historical address by Steven Treffman, honors to Leon Despres whose father was on the library board at the time of and attended the dedication a hundred years ago, and performance by members of the Hyde Park Youth Symphony. Main events were to follow in April but were postponed until fall because of ongoing ADA compliance and other renovation and because search continues for a permanent head librarian since retirement of the previous librarian. Top

Blackstone Library and the Central Division of the Chicago Public Library system launched a year-long celebration January 10, 2004 of its centennial with a reception for supporting community groups. Present included former alderman Leon Despres, whose father, then on the library board, attended the original opening in 1904. Steven Treffman, Hyde Park Historical Society Archivist, placed the building in Hyde Park context.

Timothy Blackstone (1822-1900) was a noted businessman (Chicago and Alton RR 1864-99 and first president of the Union Stock Yards, developer and philanthropist after whose family the Blackstone Hotel ("hotel of presidents") was named, was given, because his family lived there--a friend was the developer. Also, well after the library was built, the street on the west side of the library was named Blackstone Avenue. The family lived downtown (where Blackstone Hotel would be built by a friend), but had many wealthy Hyde Park friends in their circle, which largely accounts for the library being in Hyde Park.

Another reason is that the library system was already renting space for reading rooms around the city and wanted permanent stand-alone branches. CPL had already taken over the books of the old, open-to-the-public but non circulating Hyde Park Lyceum library (founded in 1884 and at nearby at Lake Park and 53rd). The Blackstone's knew the organizer of the Lyceum. Later these books went to the Blackstone Branch along with a generous gift of books by Mrs. Blackstone.

The library was commissioned by his widow Isabella Farnsworth Norton (1838-1928), who was active in the famous Fortnightly Club and after her husband's death became a noted philanthropist in her own right. Both were born (and married) in Branford, Connecticut, which has the other and larger Blackstone Library (1891, opened 1893), dedicated to Blackstone's father. The Branford edifice was also by Solon Beman and of similar design to both the Blackstone Branch and two buildings Beman designed at the contemporaneous World's Columbian Exposition. The WCE Fine Arts Palace (later Museum of Science and Industry), although by Charles Atwood for Daniel Burnham was, like the two Beman libraries, modeled on the Erechthion of Athens. This style of design became almost de rigueur in the years after the WCE. I also fit dramatically at the angular union of then Lake and Washington Avenues, visible within a part of the Kenwood mansion district from 47th. (The area to the east held mansions, then the Illinois Central.)

The building is an architectural treasure, designed by Solon S. Beman (1853-1914) who was important in Chicago, locally (including living in Kenwood for a while), and nationally. Among designs are Pullman starting in 1877, and the Fine Arts (Studebaker) building on Michigan Ave., and Christian Science churches including the former one at 40th and Drexel and that near 49th and Dorchester (recently Shiloh Baptist), and two buildings at the World's Columbian Exposition as well as at least eight houses in Hyde Park. Beman had designed C & A stations for Blackstone. For more on the details of the building, see in two articles below: current description and A Glimpse Back by Cathryn Baker.

The cornerstone of the library was laid by Isabella Blackstone on June 23, 1902. The Blackstone Library was dedicated on January 8, 1904. Hyde Park's founder Paul Cornell died just shy of two months after, on March 3, 1904. It is not known if Cornell attended either the cornerstone laying or the dedication, but present at the dedication was library board member Samuel Despres. Despres did not move his family to Hyde Park until 1911, but his famous son Leon was a major part of the January 2004 100th celebration--doubtless in the same room.

Blackstone was also the first branch library in Chicago--and the only one privately funded, It was not immediately a circulating library--and its role as the latter caused trouble as the neighborhood went down: an inventory in late 50's? showed that over a third of the volumes had disappeared (a problem shared by the main library!). Yet the library was highly popular and a refuge for all from kids to scholars. It remains and grows as a lively center of activities, with afterschool, internet, early learning, children's programs, book discussions, and a piano series. The branch is undergoing at least its third major renovation. (The children's wing was added in the 30s and extensive renovation that saved the old accessories and structure was done 1980-84. Friends of Blackstone is coordinating adjunct support, marketing, and volunteer recruitment for the library.

Steven Treffman, archivist of the Hyde Park Historical Society, wrote in the Sept. 15 Herald:

"The celebration of our Blackstone Library centenary involves more than simply praising a lovely building. For 100 years, it has been a representative outpost of civilization here in our community. Many hundreds of people have worked there, most anonymous to the public, and [they] made it possible for the ideas and hopes that went into the building in the first place to come alive through all those years. Millions of books and other media have rested in its shelves and crossed its counters for use by visitors. It has been a public institution in the very best sense of the word."


A glimpse back at 100 years at Blackstone, by Cathryn Baker

Hyde Park Herald, January 28, 2004. One of a monthly series presented by the Hyde Park Historical Society. Ms. Baker was Branch Manager at Blackstone until a controversial termination and reinstatement in the library system. Ms. Baker has been a board member of Hyde Park Historical Society.

This month the Blackstone Branch of Chicago Public Library, 4904 S. Lake Park Ave., had its 100th birthday. In a time when so many older buildings are demolished, defaced and neglected, the fact that the Blackstone Branch is not merely standing but is still actively used, is a testament to the strength libraries give communities. During the period I was Branch Manager of Blackstone, many people visiting the neighborhood came to pay respects to the place they had spent happy hours during their childhoods and early adulthoods. Sometimes past employees came back to talk about what it was like to work at this library and what they had learned from their experience at Blackstone. I loved working there. I was not only part of a vibrant present; I was continuing an illustrious past. This richness was right in my own backyard. That awareness, and my place in it, was partly what inspired me to give my best each day I worked.

Blackstone was originally a gift to the City of Chicago from Mrs. Isabel Norton Blackstone in memory of her husband, Timothy Beach Blackstone. Timothy was president of the Chicago and Alton Railroads. While serving as president, he refused any salary because he felt he had no need of more money than he had already earned from other ventures. There is another Blackstone library in Branford, Connecticut. It is also a gift from the Blackstone family. The Blackstone Branch was the first branch of the Chicago Public Library.

The building design is based on a temple in the Athenian Acropolis, the Erechthion. According to Greek legend, the goddess Demeter gave agriculture and civilization to the world during Erechthion's reign. The library's rotunda has murals devoted to labor, literature, the arts and agriculture. They were painted by Oliver Dennet Grover, who also painted murals for the Columbian Exposition. These were among his last paintings. The floor in the rotunda, circulation are and under the rug of the reference room is made from one-inch squares of Italian marble mosaic. The reference room tables are mahogany with bronze lamps topped by copper lampshades. The woodwork is all oak, expertly carved. There is a glass floor on the mezzanine, and children often pretend to go ice skating on it. The more rambunctious ones drag siblings along on the "ice" on coats. One of my new employees was rather nervous about working on the glass. I had to walk with her several times when she was working upstairs until she convinced herself that she wouldn't fall through the floor.

What impressed me most about the older part of the building were the outside and inner doors. The outside doors are constructed of thick bronze plate, filled with a solid copper core. Each one ways approximately 800 pounds. Closing them at the end of the day was like sealing a fortress. The inner doors are glass and brass. They each weigh about 150 pounds, but they are so well hung you can swing them with one finger. Once, the mechanism allowing us to lock the outer doors needed fixing. All the work had to be accomplished in one day because no one wanted to take the door off or hang it more than once. Since the lock is a custom design, the part had to be handmade. The workmen and I arrived at 6 a.m. so they could remove the problem door and begin the project. I can still remember the expressions on their faces upon first realizing what they were dealing with. Sheer amazement. But when they were done, they were also very proud. One of them came back with a friend about a year later so he could show off what he'd done.

Blackstone's granite walls are about 12 inches thick. The area around the front doors is carved with rosettes and fleur-de-lis. I used to marvel at that. Granite is among the hardest of rocks, but the carvings make the stone look soft. All that delicacy created created without benefit of power tools. I doubt that many stonemasons would be willing to try that type of work using only chisels and hammers. Once, a cable company needed to drill through th walls to provide the cable drop. The workers burned out three drills in the process. Even though they were outside, were swearing sufficiently loudly about the drills and the granite, I had to ask them to tone it down. They were right outside the children's room and story hour was in session. Whoops!

The children's room is a Works Progress Administration creation and was constructed in 1939. Like the other part of the building, the ceiling is 30 feet high. It is a lovely light, airy space with clerestory windows so it glows in morning sunlight. Originally, children had their own entrance to the room, so they wouldn't disrupt adults who were reading by arriving through the main entrance. You can tell which door they used; it's at the back of the building and is labeled "Children's Annex."

While working at Blackstone I heard many stories from patrons about their memories of the library. They told me about secretly eating in the upper stacks. They talked about getting special permission to use books in the adult collection even though they were under the official age. Even as adults, the glass mezzanine was still clearly considered a privileged space by senior citizens who lived here when no children were allowed there. I learned about friendships formed and broken. Patrons told me about staff people who had impressed them both favorably and negatively. Sometimes, former students I helped came back to tell me what had happened since they finished at local schools. Several of the "problem" patrons came back to thank me for trying to set them straight when they were going down a rocky way.

An elderly couple I remember most clearly came on a very cold winter's day. The man was with a walker, his wife was wheelchair bound and needed an oxygen tank. They wanted to visit, probably for the last time, the place where he had proposed to her 53 years earlier. They had been high-school sweethearts working on a project together who got married right after graduation. Though both of them had much trouble talking, they were eager to tell me about their courtship and the early years of their marriage, much of which clearly centered on trips to Blackstone.

From hearing the stories of these patrons, I could see the continuity between their histories and the present while I worked at Blackstone. Children swing around the brass pole in front of the circulation desk, even as they did in the 1960's when the circulation departments for children and adults combined into one. Children still squeeze themselves between the marble pillars of the rotunda, just to see if they can fit. They have been doing that since the 1940s, although children got in trouble for it then. All manner of people come in to talk, read or use computers. Others come to attend programs. These patrons are simply modern versions of those who came 100 years ago. The outside trappings are different, but the quest for knowledge is the same.

I don't imagine most people think of themselves simply coming to Blackstone. Most often the term I heard was "visit." They were visiting a living institution. In the early morning, before anyone else was there, I walked the length and breadth of that 13,000 square foot building and sometimes considered the balance between past and present. Soon enough the present becomes the past. I wonder what sort of past our present will be when Blackstone is 150-years-old? I suspect it will be just as much a living institution, but in a very different way than we now know.


Blackstone murals conserved, presentations given by conservator 2007, 2009; unveiled and dedicated August 2009

Conservator presents mural preservation at Blackstone Library

Hyde Park Herald, July 18, 2007. By Eric Kasang

Blackstone Branch Library staff and supporters are revving up for restorations of the historic murals adorning the interior of its domed entrance. People walking into the Hyde Park library at 4904 S. lake Park Ave. and tilting their heads upward will notice four faded murals depicting angels and artisans gracing the ceiling's dome.

And on July 18 and 20 at 7 p.m., Peter M. Schoenmann, head conservator of paintings and murals for Parma Conservation, Ltd., will give a free presentation on the restoration. Schoenmann has been tapped by the Blackstone to undertake the project.

Branch manager Ann Keough said this conservation is urgent. "The murals needed attention rather quickly," Keough said. "[Schoenmann] will go over some actual conservations that he's done and he'll provide a critical analysis of the murals."

The murals, with themes relating to labor, literature, the arts and agriculture, were painted by Oliver Dennet Grover, an artist who created many important murals in Chicago buildings and who was a major presence during the Word's Columbian Exhibition in 1893.

Keough said she tried to get funding for the mural conservation through the Chicago Public Library Foundation, but did not receive any money. However, she received funding for the murals from Hyde Park State Rep. Barbara Flynn Curie (D25). "We were very happy that she secured this money because the murals need restoration quickly," Keough said.

Currie said she was ferry happy to help Blackstone. "I know that they have been trying to secure funding for some time," Currie said. "And I was happy to make sure libraries in my district get the help they need."

The Blackstone murals have problems like discoloration from a previous coating on the paintings and a loose canvass, according to Schoenmann. He hoped that the presentation would rekindle interest in the project. He also explained that conservation is preserving the original murals and not repainting them. "Conservation has less to do being an artist than it has to do with being a chemist and technician," Schoenmann said. "What we focus on is getting to the truth, which means never adding anything, but in fact removing all unoriginal materials."

Schoenmann said these "unoriginal materials" included various old varnishes and grime. He said the goal is to return to the artisan's original creation. "We want to get to what the artist had intended for the viewer to see," Schoenmann said. "And that never involves interpreting or painting."

Started in 1902, the Blackstone Library was originally a gift to the City of Chicago from Isabel Norton Blackstone in memory of her husband and railroad magnate Timothy Beach Blackstone. The building was designed by noted architect Solon S. Beman and is a shining example of the Classical Revival style of architecture. For more information, please cal the Blackstone Branch Library at 312 747-0511.

Blackstone Murals receive rehab. Hyde Park Herald, July 29, 2009. By Sam Cholke

The murals high up in the main rotunda of Blackstone Library, 4904 S. Lake Park Ave., are getting their first care in 50 years -- and it's being done right this time. "They're pretty dirty," said librarian Lala Rodgers of the four main panels of the mural depicting literature, science, labor and art. the murals looked like they had never been cleaned, she said.

In 1959, the paintings were coated with "no. 38 dull," a furniture varnish, that trapped dirt in the crannies of the canvas paintings, said Peter Schoenmann from Parma Conservation. "The coating made it look worse that if it hadn't been touched," he said. "It took a lot of testing to come up with a formula that would remove no. 38 dull, but we were successful," Schoenmann said.

Schoenmann and conservationists from Bernacki & Associates, who are restoring the plaster trim and dome that was damaged from a leak in the library's roof, will finish their work in the first week of August. They will return to the library at 7 p.m. Aug. 31 to give a presentation on the process of restoring the Oliver Dennett Grover paintings.

"He was one of the greatest Chicago artists," Schoenmann said. "He was at the center of everything in art in Chicago at the time." Grover was a prominent turn-of-the-century painter in the Beaux Arts style, who displayed work during the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. He was closely aligned with respected architects of the fair, including Solon Beman, who would go on to design the Blackstone Library. "It's amazing how few brushstrokes [Grover] needed to render something that looked alive," Schoenmann said. "These are exquisite -- it's a shame they're up so high."

Blackstone Library murals fixed. Hyde Park Herald, August 26, 2009

Illinois House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25) and Library Commissioner Mary A. Dempsey will unveil the fully restored Blackstone Branch Library mural at 1 p.m. Aug. 27. Currie was instrumental in securing the $100,000 necessary to restore the mural by Oliver Dennett Grover for the first time in over 50 years.

"It's amazing how few brushstrokes [Grover] needed to render something that looked alive," said Peter Schoenmann from Parma Conservation, which restored the mural's four painted panels in the library's rotunda. "These are exquisite-- it's a shame they're so high up."

Grover, who painted the 14-foot by 9-foot panels, was a prominent local artist and muralist for Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. The murals depict the themes of literature, science, labor and at, each with a central statuesque winged female surrounded by other figures and allegorical symbols. The murals are framed by elaborate decorative plasterwork that continues up into the dome and is accented in gold leaf. Grover reportedly received $10,000 in 1902 to produce the murals, which were recently appraised at more than 100 times that amount.

The library is named for a Chicago philanthropist, Timothy Beach Blackstone, former president of the Chicago and Alton Railroad. His widow, Mrs. Isabel Farnsworth Norton Blackstone, commissioned celebrated Chicago architect Solon S. Beman to design the branch building as a gift to the Chicago Public Library and citizens of Chicago in memory of her husband. Beman's design for the building was inspired by the Erectheion, a temple on the Athenian Acropolis.

[Unveiling and dedication were held Aug. 27, a presentation of the restoration and its process was held August 31.]


Exterior views

Front (Lake Park address), except bottom right is what is now the rear, Blackstone side.

6 exterior views of Blackstone Memorial Branch Library Chicago, Solon Beman arch.  4904 S. Lake Park Avenue Gary Ossewaarde