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Chicago’s newest library branch preserves the old and ushers in the new

Its exterior design reflects the neighborhood’s industrial history, while its interior fosters community and shared learning.

January 18, 2019 |

The main reading room in the Chicago Public Library's new West Loop branch. Image: Tom Harris

Yesterday, the city of Chicago inaugurated its Public Library’s 81st branch, a 16,500-sf adaptive reuse of a two-story building in the Windy City’s West Loop neighborhood, which itself is being transformed into a live-work-play community.

The former office and studio building is West Loop’s first library. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s design preserves the building’s industrial character while creating a new cultural and social center for the neighborhood. Blinderman Construction conducted the renovation.

The library, consisting of two conjoined buildings, features a weathered steel exterior that helps to unify the facade and guide visitors through the steel-framed entrance. The renovated interior exposes the previously concealed original bow-truss ceilings and skylights to create a light-filled, loft-like space that reflects the neighborhood’s factory-warehouse style.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's design retained the building's original bowed-truss ceiling. Image: Tom Harris


Non-structural walls that divided former TV studios and office spaces were removed, and new openings in the common wall between the buildings create a unified interior. Low-level bookshelves are featured throughout the reading spaces to foster a sense of visual continuity and movement.

The library, with 10,000 sf on the ground floor, has a total occupancy of 447. Its second floor includes 2,100 sf for five reservable meeting and study rooms, and around 3,500 sf for two conference rooms.

A reading and play space for younger children. Image: Tom Harris


The new facility includes adult and children's reading spaces, and a YOUmedia teen digital learning space with a recording studio. A “Tinkering Lab” offers digital and maker space for younger children, who are also served by several early learning areas that transform existing alcoves into storytelling rooms with interactive play elements and walls with magnetic and writeable surfaces.

The developer Sterling Bay donated the building in exchange for being allowed to shift its air rights to the developer’s adjacent 16-story Hyatt Hotel development on May Street, according to Curbed Chicago. The $2.3 million renovation project was funded by a mix of private donations and $976,000 from the city’s Neighborhood Opportunity Bonus program, which provides increased height and density allowances for downtown construction projects in exchange for voluntary developer payments. 

“The new West Loop library branch is a proud example of how city officials come together with private partners to build strong neighborhoods, and provide a place for all community residents to gather, share and succeed,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, during the opening ceremony.

 The library's enclosed “Tinkering Lab” includes collaborative spaces with writable surfaces. Image: Tom Harris 

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