Unlocking a Northwestern Tradition

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

by Matt Paolelli


Northwestern University alumni returning to campus for Homecoming festivities experienced a bit of a time warp at Deering Library. The University celebrated the reopening of the library’s front doors for the first time in 42 years with a ceremony at the newly renovated entryway facing Deering Meadow.
The ribbon cutting had both a historic and historical feel, with members of the Deering and McCormick families--whose generous gifts made the reopening possible--on hand to wield the giant scissors. The youngest descendants of the library’s namesake Charles Deering, four-year-old Cyra and six-year-old Sebastian Vella, even dressed in period clothing to evoke images from the library’s original ribbon-cutting ceremony in 1933.
“This is where learning and studies and growth may take place in a space of quiet beauty and strong intention,” said Stephen Strachan, chair of the library board of governors and great-grandson of Charles Deering. “It gets to the very heart of the University.”
The ceremony also featured remarks from Morton Schapiro, University president, and Sarah Pritchard, dean of libraries and University librarian.
Deering’s main entrance was shuttered in 1970 when the new University Library opened. Although Deering had long been a vibrant hub of student life, students at the time seemed to prefer the new library, Pritchard said. As years went by and nostalgia for Deering increased, the idea of reopening the doors became financially untenable, as new building codes required costly modifications to improve security, accessibility and climate control.
Construction began last summer, and the long awaited dream of reopening the doors became a reality just in time for Homecoming weekend. ADA-approved accessibility ramps have been seamlessly added to the reconfigured front entrance. Improved climate control systems, a proper security system and an ornate front desk have been integrated into the library’s lobby.
Pritchard praised the attention to detail of the renovation in “modernizing, and yet you would never know it’s been modernized, this beautiful, historic building.”


About Deering Library

History of Deering Library

The Charles Deering Library was made possible by a bequest from Charles Deering (1852-1927), which was soon augmented by large gifts from his widow and three children. The Deering family had long been supporters of Northwestern; Charles’ father, William Deering, was a president of the university’s board of trustees and made many gifts to the university in its early years. He was the founder of the Deering Harvester Company, which merged with the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company to form International Harvester in 1902. The building was designed by architect James Gamble Rogers in the Collegiate Gothic style, which flourished on Ivy League campuses in the early twentieth century. When it opened in 1933, the building was absolutely modern, with a capacity of 500,000 volumes and seating for 900 readers. With its setting on high ground overlooking Deering Meadow and facing Sheridan Road, Deering Library is recognized today as the university’s most prominent landmark. 

The decision to close the doors

After the Main Library opened in 1970, Deering’s main entrance was decommissioned for reasons of staffing and security. Deering was connected to the new university library, and took on a new role as the site of specialized rooms and collections. For decades, one has had to enter through confusing corridors in the basement or on the third floor, leading from the Main Library to Deering — not exactly the dramatic entrance into the lobby that Rogers designed, with a medieval feeling evoked by the beamed and stenciled ceilings, carvings, and inscriptions.

The gift to reopen

In the spring of 2009, the Chauncey and Marion Deering McCormick Foundation and Mrs. Charles Deering McCormick made the initial gifts towards major renovation of the Deering Library building. Thanks to this generous support, the west entrance of Deering Library is undergoing renovations that will enable it to be used again as a main entrance, opening onto Deering Meadow as the welcoming entry Rogers originally envisioned.

Scope of the project

Reopening the entrance involves making the entrance more weather-proof and ADA-accessible, installing security gates and a check desk, improving the lighting and exhibition cases, and various other elements. The finished project will be compatible with, and restore, the historic style and ornamentation.

The Vision for Deering moving forward

Moving forward, we plan to reconfigure spaces and rearrange collections as necessary to showcase Deering's remarkable space and research assets for the campus and the community. Our comprehensive plan addresses three critical needs:

  • Restoring the library to its former glory and bringing it into the 21st century: address the wear and tear on the 79-year-old building, improve lighting, restore the stained-glass windows, update environmental controls and security, and conserve the classic woodwork, carvings, and other artworks
  • Making a dynamic and welcoming space at the heart of campus: create areas for students to study and relax, redesign seminar rooms for small groups to use rare materials in teaching, expand the ability to use wifi and laptops and other devices, and create lively spaces for events such as author readings, lectures, and receptions
  • Ensuring the security of the collections while also increasing access: create more open access to the music and art collections, and a highly-monitored reading room for the use of rare books, manuscripts, and archival materials
  • Improving connectivity to University Library: Reconfigure hallways, elevators and other aspects of the building to make the two buildings function as a more integral whole.


Support the Renovation


It will take the help of the entire Northwestern community to make this renovation a reality. Your support makes a difference. Give now!


  1. When did Deering open? What about Main?
  2. Deering Library opened in 1933. Main Library opened in 1970.
  3. Why did the university close the doors/entrance?
  4. In 1970, Main Library opened. The new library, designed by Walter Netsch, had as much vision, theory, and passion behind its planning as had gone into Deering, with a result totally different – reflecting the aesthetic of the times, advances in technology, and new interpretation of the purpose of a Library. With Deering’s collections settled into their new locations, the need to promote and secure them became clear. The decision was made to close the Deering Library doors in favor of a single, secure, main entrance.
  5. What is Deering used for now? Is it still open to the public?
    Deering is open to the public. It currently houses the University Archives, Special Collections, Music Library, and Art collection.
  6. Why did we decide now to reopen the doors?
  7. As part of its long-range plan launched in 2009, the University’s library system is pursuing new opportunities to encourage collaboration, deliver high-tech services, and make the best use of important core collections. Opening the west entrance will counteract the current perception that Deering is off limits, dramatically increasing accessibility and circulation within the building and raising awareness of its beautiful interior and important holdings.
  8. What exactly has gone into “reopening the doors”? How much work is being done and why?
    Reopening the entrance involves making the entrance more weather-proof and ADA-accessible, installing security gates and a check desk, improve the lighting and exhibition cases, and various other elements. It will all be done to be compatible with, and restore, the historic style and ornamentation. In addition, support has been committed from the University for the ongoing staffing needed to monitor the entrance and welcome visitors.
  9. How will Deering change once the doors are open?
    We hope it will become more lively! We know that we will be able to exhibit more of our most valuable items, and encourage greater use for study and research by students and faculty. It may also help the library become a more effective partner for events held on the meadow.