“The History of The Newberry Library, Part I,” by S.M. O’Connor

One of the twelve founders of the Chicago Historical Society (C.H.S.), Judge Mark Skinner (1813-1887), was the lawyer for Walter Loomis Newberry (1804-1868), and convinced W. L. Newberry when he wrote his will that if his daughters should die without issue, his money should be used to found a library.  Walter Loomis Newberry had come to Chicago from Detroit and amassed a fortune in real estate and railroad investments, as well as banking, served as President of the C.H.S. from 1860 until his death in ‘68.  In 1841, Newberry had co-founded the Young Men’s Association, which in 1868 changed its name to the Chicago Library Association to avoid confusion with the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.).  Unfortunately, his daughters, Mary Louisa Newberry and Julia Rosa Newberry, both died within ten years of their father’s death at sea while on his way to his home in the South of France. At his death, his estate was valued at $4,300,000.  Judge Skinner and E.W. Blatchford became estate administrators.  In July of 1871, William H. Bradley replaced Skinner.  Newberry’s own personal library was one of many private libraries consumed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  Mary Louisa Newberry died in 1874 and Julia Rosa Newberry died in 1876.  Their mother, Mrs. Julia Clapp Newberry, died on December 9, 1885.  In 1887, nearly twenty years after his death, half of Newberry’s estate ($2,100,000) went towards the founding of The Newberry Library.  [The rest went to his nieces and nephews.]  Today, there is a bronze bust of Walter L. Newberry in the lobby of The Newberry Library.

W. L. Newberry’s will invested estate trustees Eliphalet W. Blatchford and William H. Bradley with broad powers. Blatchford had been one of the co-founders of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Northwestern Branch of the United States Sanitation Commission. He was an early member of the Chicago Historical Society. Blatchford served as President of the Newberry Library until his death in 1914.  Later, he also became a founding trustee of The John Crerar Library, which incorporated in 1894.

Newberry’s will stipulated that the Newberry Library should be built on the site of the former Newberry homestead, the block bounded by Erie, Pine, Ontario, and Rush Streets.  This seemed appropriate, so why isn’t it there?  Some people, notably famous architect Dankmar Adler (1844-1900), suggested that it should be built in Lincoln Park.  In June of 1889, the Board of Trustees selected the site occupied by the Mahlon D. Ogden mansion, which had survived the Great Fire of 1871, because it was 3,000 square feet larger, bounded by Oak Street to the north, Dearborn Street to the east, Walton Street to the south, and Clark Street to the west.  In addition to being a larger site, here the Newberry Library would front on Washington Square Park (also known as Bughouse Square), as if it was The Newberry Library’s front lawn, and yet The Newberry Library would be easily accessible from the Loop due to the Clark Street cable-car line.  Washington Square Park takes up a block bounded by Walton Street to the north, Dearborn Street to the east, Delaware Place to the south, and Clark Street to the west.  Mahlon D. Ogden was the lawyer brother of Chicago’s first mayor, oligarch and railroad executive William B. Ogden (1805-1877).  In 1929, the General Henry Dearborn Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution had a memorial plaque affixed to an exterior wall of the Newberry Library that reads, “THIS LIBRARY STANDS ON THE SITE / FORMERLY OCCUPIED BY THE MAHLON D. OGDEN RESIDENCE, / THE ONLY HOUSE IN THE PATH OF THE GREAT FIRE OF 1871 / WHICH WAS NOT BURNED.”


Figure 1 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is a view of the fountain at the center of Washington Square Park and The Newberry Library, as seen on June 5, 2010.


Figure 2 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is a view of the fountain at the center of Washington Square Park and The Newberry Library on Sunday, July 14, 2019.


Figure 3 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is a close-up of the fountain at the center of Washington Square Park and The Newberry Library on Sunday, July 14, 2019.  The Newberry Library is a privately-funded research library that is open to the public, located at 60 West Walton Street on the North Side of Chicago.  In 2012, it celebrated the 125th anniversary of its foundation in 1887.

Until The Newberry Library building opened, the organization operated in rented rooms at 90 LaSalle Street.  In April of 1888, the Library moved from the La Salle Street rooms into two three-story buildings that had been erected by order of The Newberry Library’s Board of Trustees at 111-119 East Ontario Street. These two buildings were intended to temporarily house The Newberry Library until its permanent building was completed, at which time they would be sold as domiciles.

      Dr. William Frederick Poole (1821-1894), who had been the first Librarian of the Chicago Public Library from 1873 to 1887, served as the first librarian of The Newberry Library from 1887 until his death in 1894.  Poole was probably the foremost librarian in the country at the time.  A graduate of Yale University, Dr. Poole had served as Librarian of the Boston Athenaeum, and subsequently as Librarian of the Boston Mercantile Library, before he became a consultant on the organization of libraries in 1869.  Within a year-and-a-half of taking office, Dr. Poole had purchased 25,000 books.  Poole believed every library’s book collection was unique and that a librarian should design a library building and catalogue system to fit his collection.  He worked closely with the architect on the interior arrangement of the Newberry Library.

Famed Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb (1859-1931) designed The Newberry Library building.  In March of 1888, The Newberry Library’s Board of Trustees chose twenty-nine-year-old Cobb, who had already designed the third C.H.S. building at 632 North Dearborn Street, which is now known as the Old Chicago Historical Society Building, and more recently housed the Excalibur Nightclub, The Castle nightclub, and is now TAO Chicago.  A few years later, he would design the Fisheries Building, the Marine Café, and the Indiana State Building for Chicago’s first World’s Fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893).

Dr. Poole was also involved in the World’s Columbian Exposition, as he was Chairman of the Committee on Literary Congresses.  [The Congresses (international conferences and symposiums) were held in the World’s Congress Auxiliary in Grant Park, a building erected to temporarily house the Congresses and permanently house The Art Institute of Chicago once the World’s Fair was over.  The A.I.C. opened in the building on December 8, 1893.]  Poole encouraged World’s Fair visitors to come see progress on The Newberry Library building, which opened in November, shortly after the World’s Fair ended.

Poole and Cobb repeatedly clashed over the design of the building, and Poole triumphed. In contrast to his contemporaries and the interior design initially developed by Cobb, Poole favored numerous small reading rooms filled with books on particular subjects, rather than a large, central reading room and separate book stacks. The stack system was introduced to the U.S.A. with Harvard University’s Gore Hall, a block, added to the rear of Harvard’s old Neo-Gothic library, which became the reading room.  Gore Hall was designed by librarian Justin Winsor and executed by Henry Van Brunt.  It came in the tradition of the Bibliotheque Ste. Genevieve (1843-50),[1] the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (1858-68),[2] and the British Museum Reading Room (1854-57).[3]

The five-story building has a Richardsonian Romanesque façade that features heavily rusticated stone at the base and smoother stone higher up.[4]  The stone is pink granite from Branford, Connecticut.  Three shallow pavilions, surmounted by low hipped roofs, are at the center and far ends of the wide south elevation.   The entrance on the ground floor of the central pavilion was inspired by the west portal of a 12th Century abbey church in the South of France, a real example of the Romanesque style of architecture.[5] Engaged columns support the triple round compound arches at the base of the central (entrance) pavilion.  The intrados of the arches (arch interiors) were described by one admirer as “richly carved.” Arcaded pilasters and engaged columns for the second and third floors on the façade give the impression of a single tall floor. The fourth floor, which also arcaded, has a larger number of windows, though each window is smaller than the windows on the lower floors.

In 1889, Poole purchased the library of Count Pio Resse of Florence.  This collection, rich in the history of music, included the Newberry’s first incunabula, a 1475 copy of St. Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on the Gospels.  In 1890, he purchased an even larger library, that of Henry Probasco, a Cincinnati businessman, politician, and bibliophile whom Poole had met while head of the Cincinnati Public Library.  The Probasco Collection included 112 incunabula; illuminated manuscripts; the first, second, and fourth folios of Shakespeare; and the four-volume set of the elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. By the time The Newberry Library opened, its holdings included more than 160,000 volumes.

The Newberry Library incorporated in 1892 and the building opened in 1893, the same year as Chicago’s first World’s Fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition.  By the time of Dr. Poole’s death in 1894, The Newberry Library had a collection of 120,000 books and 44,000 pamphlets.

The poet and essayist John Vance Cheney (1848-1922) became the second Librarian of The Newberry Library.  He brought with him his assistant, Alexander J. Rudolph. It was he who produced the Rudolph indexer catalogues.  The in-house bindery also opened in 1894.

In 1896, the Chicago Public Library, Newberry Library, and The John Crerar Library had reached an agreement by which they would divide the work of developing collections. Under the Metropolitan Library Agreement, the Chicago Public Library would concentrate on general literature and Chicagoana, The Newberry Library would concentrate on the humanities, and The John Crerar Library would concentrate on the biology, medicine, and physical science. Between 1896 and 1913, The Newberry Library donated one-quarter of its 1896 collection – scientific and medical books – to The Crerar Library, so the Newberry Library could concentrate on being a humanities research library. In 1896, the Newberry transferred to the Crerar its holdings in science, industry, and social sciences.  In 1898, the Crerar gained the Newberry’s ornithological holdings, which included the Henry Probasco copy of Audubon’s Birds of America.  In 1906, the Newberry transferred to the Crerar its holdings in medical, chemistry and some remaining books on other natural sciences.  This included a separate collection, the surgical library of Dr. Nicholas Senn, which included the manuscripts of Dr. Senn’s medical writings, travel journals and lecture notes.  By 1916, The Newberry Library had transferred more than 75,000 books and other items to The Crerar Library, equivalent to one-quarter of its 1896 collection. In this way, The Crerar Library gained valuable books on science and medicine, while The Newberry Library was able to focus on the humanities.

In 1901, The Newberry Library acquired the linguistics collection of Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte (1813-1891), a scholar and politician who was the nephew of Emperor Napoleon I (lived 1769-1821, reigned 1804-1814, 1815) and the first cousin of Emperor Napoleon III (lived 1808-1873, reigned 1852-1870).  It was comprised of some 18,000 items.

Cheney resigned in 1909.  Author W.N.C. (William Newham Chattin) Carlton (1873-1943), a librarian and author, became the third Librarian of The Newberry Library and dispensed with the Rudolph indexer.  He held the office until 1920.

In 1911, Edward E. Ayer (1841-1927), a railroad tie magnate who had been instrumental in the foundation the Columbian Field Museum (which evolved into The Field Museum of Natural History), served as first President of the Columbian Field Museum, endowed The Field Museum Library, and was a founding member of The Newberry Library’s Board of Trustees, donated over 17,000 documents on contacts between American Indians and Europeans.  He was the first person to donate rather than sell a great collection to The Newberry Library.  Subsequently, the Ayer endowment allowed The Newberry Library to collect over 130,000 volumes, 1,000,000 manuscripts pages, 500 atlases, 11,000 photographs, and 3,500 drawings and paintings on the same subject as the collection that he donated.  Edward & Julie Baskes, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and an Illinois State Library Services and Technology grant paid for the Edward E. Ayer Digital Collection.

Publisher John Mansir Wing (1844-1917) followed his example and donated his personal collection of the history of printing in 1912.  Further, he donated funds to allow the collection to grow.  Today, the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing has a collection that is comprised of 100,000 volumes of technical literature, on printing and book arts; 600 cubic feet of archival records; 650 calligraphic manuscripts and 2,100 printed volumes on calligraphy; 68,000 volumes of printing samples (including 2,200 volumes from the 15th Century); and over 15,000 examples of printed ephemera.

In 1920, George Burwell Utley (1876-1946), who had been the first Librarian of the Jacksonville Public Library down in Jacksonville, Florida, became the fourth Librarian of The Newberry Library.  He and his wife had moved to Chicago in 1911 so he could serve as Secretary of the American Library Association (A.L.A.) from 1911 to 1920.  He also concurrently served as Executive Secretary of the War Library Service during the First Great World War.  From 1922 to ’23, he served simultaneously as Librarian of The Newberry Library and as President of the A.L.A. In 1925, he also served as President of the Illinois Library Association.

In the 1920s, The Newberry Library began the intensive acquisition of incunabula (books and pamphlets printed in Europe before 1501).  The Newberry Library’s collection of incunabula now stands at 2,2,00 items.  The Rare Book Room opened in 1930.

Newberry Trustee William Greenlee (1872-1953) donated his Portuguese library in 1937.  He was greatly interested in Portuguese and Brazilian history and had studied in the Ayer Collection before he donated his own collection of books.  He continued to carry out research at The Newberry Library and edited a volume on voyages to Brazil for the Hakluyt Society.  The William B. Greenlee Collection now stands at 10,000 volumes and 226 manuscripts in the Portuguese language.  Furthermore, in recent years, The Newberry Library has acquired 15,000 leaflets, pamphlets, and booklets printed between the 16th and 19th Centuries.

Utley retired in 1942.  Stanley McCrory Pargellis (1898-1968), the fifth Newberry Librarian (1942-1962), broadened The Newberry Library’s mission.  He established scholarly outreach programs (fellowships and conferences).  Pargellis also began publication of a house organ, the Newberry Library Bulletin, to publicize The Newberry Library’s holdings and encourage their use.

In 1965, Pargellis wed Mrs. (Mabel) Erler, who had worked at The Newberry Library from 1928 to 1965.[6]  She was head of technical services at the head of her retirement, and as such had corresponded with bookdealers across the U.S.A., the U.K., and Continental Europe.[7]  Once a year, she would travel to Europe to acquire books and other materials for The Newberry Library. [8] A native of Hiawatha, Kansas who had studied at Northwestern University and The University of Chicago.[9]  After Stanley McCrory Pargellis died in 1968, Mabel Erler Pargellis returned to Hiawatha, Kansas, where she died in 1988 at the age of eighty-four.[10]


Figure 4 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is a look down Walton Street on June 5, 2010 with Washington Square Park on the left and The Newberry Library on the right.


Figure 5 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is the central pavilion of the Richardsonian Romanesque façade Cobb designed for The Newberry Library, seen here on Sunday, July 14, 2019.  The portal was inspired by a 12th Century abbey church in the South of France. Engaged columns support the triple round compound arches at the base of the central (entrance) pavilion.  Arcaded pilasters and engaged columns for the second and third floors on the façade give the impression of a single tall floor. The fourth floor, which has eight arcaded windows, though each window is smaller than the windows on the lower floors.


Figure 6 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: Cobb borrowed the entrance for The Newberry Library, as seen on Sunday, July 14, 2019, from the Romanesque-style church of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Gilles-du-Gard.[11]


Figure 7 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is the southeast corner of The Newberry Library at the intersection of Walton Street and Dearborn Street, as seen on June 5, 2010.  Views like this one highlight the contrast between the rusticated stone at the base and the smoother stone of the higher stories.


Figure 8 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is the east elevation of Cobb’s original library building, two of the three additions behind it, and the parking lot at the northeast corner of the block, as seen on June 5, 2010.


[1] The Library of Saint Genevieve is the principal library of the University of Paris.  It is named after St. Genevieve, the Patron Saint of Paris, because the core of the collection came from the Abbey of St. Genevieve.  [King Clovis I of the Franks built the original church, which was dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul.  He and his wife, Queen Clotilde, were buried there.  St. Genevieve was buried near them and her relics were the subject of veneration.]  The militantly atheistic government that emerged in the French Revolution evicted the thirty-nine canons from the Abbey of St. Genevieve, demolished the building, and expropriated the books.

[2] The National Library of France is, of course, also located in Paris.  It evolved from the Royal Library at the Louvre Palace founded by King Charles V (lived 1338-1380, reigned 1364-1380), called “ Charles the Wise,” a member of the House of Valois.  The aforementioned First Republic of Paris expropriated the contents of the Royal Library and added to it the contents of monastic libraries and the private libraries of aristocrats across France.  It quickly became the largest library in Europe.  Emperor Napoleon I added books from countries he conquered to what was then the Imperial Library, but after his final defeat in 1815 the National Library had to give back many of those books. Pierre-François-Henri Labrouste (1801-1875), a graduate of the École de Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts), designed both the Bibliotheque Ste. Genevieve and the Reading Room at the Bibliotheque Nationale.

[3] The British Museum Reading Room evolved into a separate organization, The British Library.  It legally became a separate entity in 1973 and moved into its own quarters in St. Pancras in 1998.   After The British Library moved out of The British Museum in 1998, the latter’s Central Library remained in the Reading Room, but in 2007 the Central Library moved into the Paul Hamlyn Library, a reference library The British Museum had established in 2000, and effectively merged with it to clear the Reading Room to become exhibit space.  The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army was the first of ten special exhibits The British Museum held in the Reading Room between 2007 and 2013.

[4] The Richardsonian Romanesque style is a variation of the Romanesque Revival style of architecture (also known as the Neo-Romanesque style of architecture) developed by the great 19th Century American architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886).

[5] The church of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Gilles-du-Gard is famous because the abbey was founded in the 7th Century by the Greek-born hermit-priest St. Giles (circa 650-710 A.D.), and the church contains his tomb.  It became the first stop along the pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago (“Way of St. James”) that terminates at the shrine of the apostle St. James at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in the capital city of Galicia, Spain.

[6] Kenan Heise, “Mabel Pargellis, Ex-Librarian,” Chicago Tribune, 23 August, 1988 (https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1988-08-23-8801240938-story,amp.html) Accessed 07/24/19

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] The 7th Century Greek-born hermit-priest St. Giles (circa 650-710 A.D.) founded the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Gilles-du-Gard.  The church crypt contains his tomb.  Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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