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Newberry Library shows off visitor-friendly renovation, new World’s Fair exhibit

The Newberry Library on West Walton Street has undergone nine months of extensive renovations. | James Foster / Sun-Times

If you’ve strolled along West Walton Street in the heart of Chicago’s Gold Coast, you might have walked past the stately edifice and wondered whether the Newberry Library was a private club or members-only reading room.

But, since opening in 1887, the library has been free and open to the public, as well as to researchers and scholars.

All you need is a Newberry reader card, available free at the library or online. That opens a window to everything from Chicago and American history to medieval, Renaissance and Early Modern Studies, to American Indian and Indigenous Studies. to one of the best collections of historical maps, among its many collections. Even if, say, you wanted to research your own family’s genealogy, the Newberry is a good place to start.

But, however grand, at 131 years old, the Newberry was showing its age. A major renovation was announced in January. This weekend, the public is invited to the “rebirth” of the venerable institution, which remained open during the renovation.

Designed by Ann Beha Architects, the $12.7 million project, covering 23,000 square feet of the first floor and lower levels of the library, took nine months to complete. The library so far has $10 million toward that from individual donors, foundation support and its ongoing endowment.

The changes in the building’s appearance begin on the exterior. The wrought-iron fencing that once encircled the structure has been made “much less intimidating, less fortress-like now,” library spokesman Alex Teller says. “People who don’t know us were maybe intimidated by the facade. … If you don’t know what a research library is on the inside, you tend to enter very tentatively. We’re trying to tell our users and potential users we’re making our access even easier for you.”

The lobby is open and airy. Its mosaic-tiled floor, dating to 1893, has been restored. A new welcome center offers a central spot for information about the library and easier access to sign up for reader cards. Two newly conceived and remodeled galleries are home to permanent and rotating exhibitions. Visitors now have easier access to work with library documents and artifacts. The bookstore has doubled in square footage, and several event spaces have been reconfigured.

“We’ve opened the lobby up a lot more,” Teller says. “The first thing they used to see was our security kiosk. That’s been moved off to the side. Our new welcome center — believe it or not, we never had one before — is a game-changer for us.

“The key function of the library — signing up readers and giving them an understanding of who we are and how they can use the collections — is now happening here on the first floor, as opposed to [the third floor] where it used to take place.”

The Victoria J. Herget Welcome Center at the newly remodeled Newberry Library. | James Foster / Sun-Times
The Victoria J. Herget Welcome Center at the newly remodeled Newberry Library. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Noting that the privately operated library is free to the public, Teller says, “You don’t have to be a hardcore scholar to partake of all we have to offer.”

“The whole project was our way of responding to the revolving needs of today’s users of libraries like this and bringing the first floor up to date,” says David Spadafora, Newberry’s president and libraria. “A lot of people who do know our name are under the apprehension that we’re an institution for scholars’ research. And while that is true to one extent — as we have scholars who come here from all around the world — a third of our readers are people who are doing genealogy. Overall, we have the largest group of readers of any independent library in the country.”

The first major exhibit on the reconfigured main floor commemorates the 125th anniversary of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Titled “Pictures from an Exposition: Visualizing the 1893 World’s Fair,” it features maps, postcards, souvenirs, books and photographs from the Daniel Burnham- and Frederick Law Olmsted-designed “White City” fairgrounds.

Official postcards for the 1893 Columbian Exposition are on display at “Pictures From an Exposition: Visualizing the 1893 World’s Fair” at the Newberry Library. | James Foster / Sun-Times
Official postcards for the 1893 Columbian Exposition are on display at “Pictures From an Exposition: Visualizing the 1893 World’s Fair” at the Newberry Library. | James Foster / Sun-Times

“The items in this exhibit, these visualizations, were used before the fair to promote the event, during the fair — such as maps to help them navigate the grounds — and then after the fair,” says Diane Dillon, the Newberry’s director of exhibitions and curator of Pictures from an Exposition.

The exhibit features nearly 200 items, ranging from World’s Fair playing cards to hand-held fans to architectural renderings and letters and ledgers detailing people’s impressions of what they saw.

“It was a spectacular event, and these visualizations give us a sense of that — the experience of going there and seeing these buildings and taking boat rides and riding the massive Ferris Wheel, just experiencing the daily goings-on such as parades, concerts, fireworks displays, seeing art from around the world,” Dillon says. “And it was the first electrified fair, so there was the whole experience of seeing it completely illuminated at night.”

Souvenir fans of the 1893 Columbian Exposition are on display at “Pictures From an Exposition: Visualizing the 1893 World’s Fair,” a new exhibit of artifacts from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in the newly remodeled Newberry Library. | James Foster / Sun-
Souvenir fans of the 1893 Columbian Exposition are on display at “Pictures From an Exposition: Visualizing the 1893 World’s Fair,” a new exhibit of artifacts from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in the newly remodeled Newberry Library. | James Foster / Sun-Times