Harold Washington Library by HBRA Architects

Harold Washington Library by Hammond, Beeby and Babka

Located at 400 South State St. in the Loop, the Harold Washington Library is the main branch of the Chicago Public Library. The Postmodern building was designed by HBRA Architects [Hammond, Beeby and Babka] and opened to the public in 1991.

The design incorporates numerous visual references to nearby buildings. I’m not really a fan of Postmodernism but, in the context of downtown Chicago, this approach seems to make sense. The building mimics without pretending. The detailing acknowledges the richness of its architectural neighbors.

At 760,000 square feet, this was in 1991 the largest circulating library in the US and the largest design⁄build architectural project ever undertaken. Above and below, a couple of views of the beautiful winter garden and its soaring ceiling:

Harold Washington Library by Hammond, Beeby and Babka

The decorated ceiling in one of the hallways:


I’m taking you through this building backwards, so that we end with the lobby. Here, a gilded banister with a marble base overlooks a globe-like terrazzo floor below:

Harold Washington Library by Hammond, Beeby and Babka

Looking down — okay, it doesn’t look like a flattened globe. Could it be a celestial map?

Harold Washington Library by Hammond, Beeby and Babka

Maybe this element shows distances to far-flung places, a la the Daily News Building lobby in Manhattan:

Daily News Building by Raymond Hood & John Mead Howells

Not at all! what is this stuff? Encoded Masonic messages?

Harold Washington Library by Hammond, Beeby and Babka

A bit of digging led to the answer: this is an artwork [cosmogram, in the artist’s words] entitled DuSable’s Journey by the artist Houston Conwill, the architect Joseph DePace and the poet Estella Conwill Majoza. It depicts the journey undertaken by Jean Baptiste DuSable, Chicago’s first permanent settler, from his birthplace in Haiti through the various waterways that led him and his family to the Great Lakes.

The library is named after Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor and a champion of this particular project. The cosmogram includes quotes from Washington’s first and second mayoral inaugural speeches, with the goal of connecting Chicago’s first settler, who was of French African descent, with Chicago’s first African American mayor. An initially puzzling piece of art, but a lovely tribute.

One thought on “Harold Washington Library by HBRA Architects

  1. Thanks for little peak into the Harold Washington Library. It brought back special memories. My favorite areas: 2nd-3rd story middle atrium, reference reading room, special collections section café.
    * Two other outstanding libraries in Chicago: U. of Chicago’s special reference library; Newberry Collections Library, near Water Tower Place.

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