James Gamble Rogers and the Architecture of Northwestern's Charles Deering Library

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The Charles Deering Library was dedicated January 3, 1933, and served as Northwestern University's central library until 1970, when a research library was constructed. Deering Library was designed by James Gamble Rogers (1867-1947), a renowned architect of the Collegiate Gothic style who also designed the South Quads, Dyche Stadium, and Scott Hall on Northwestern's Evanston campus Doors of Deering Libraryand most of the buildings on the University's Chicago campus. Rogers was responsible for numerous other academic buildings including the Harkness Quads and the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. The Deering Library's neo-gothic design was inspired by King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England.

According to Aaron Betsky, author of James Gamble Rogers and the Architecture of Pragmatism (NY: Architectural History Foundation, 1994):

The building presents itself as a simple box placed on top of a ridge overlooking a lawn. The facade is divided into eleven equal bays by buttresses that start out as pronounced stone piers and at the top blend into the skin of the building. Each end elevation is organized around a single arched window, and the elaborately composed corners are held by piers topped by octagonal caps, which Rogers at one time had envisioned as towers. These corners act as clamps rising from the base to hold in place the top two floors which appear as if they were a single volume held in a cage of stone piers. There is a delicate balance between the rigid march of the bays, grounded by low arched windows and stone walls, and the ethereal quality of the reading room areas contained behind the glass windows, while the buttresses give one the sense that the whole box is riding the ridge.

The building then sets back a few times from the side elevation to contain what amounts to a second, rear, box whose facades are more closed and flat, since they contain little ornament or detail. This secondary set of shapes contain the bookstacks, expressed as a series of narrowly spaced stone sections facing what was then the rear of campus, a marshy area next to Lake Michigan.

The front structure is in fact all that most visitors and users of the library inhabit, and within its shape a series of equally simple rectangular shapes are played off against a rich choreography meant, as at Yale, to slowly seduce one into the assimilation of knowledge through books. The visitor enters through one of three low arches – thus being confronted immediately with the structure of the building – thence into a loggia of vaulted spaces covered with stone, much like a dark medieval crypt.

The central axis disappears completely on the second floor. The building is here divided into a series of slots running at right angles to this axis and parallel to the ridge. The 'front of the house' is taken up by a narrow 'Stair Hall, ' which is nothing so much as a glorified double-loaded corridor through which one enters the two reading rooms on the sides and the main reading room in the center. The latter space is the main room of the building. It is an uninterrupted space of tall windows, long rows of desks, and a high, wood-paneled ceiling. Placed over the entrance and extending beyond the width of the other spaces, this room is the resting point at the end of the journey through the front part of the building. Along the way, hortatory inscriptions about the value of knowledge give one footnotes to the purpose of the journey, much in the way the decoration at Henri Labrouste's Bibliotheque Ste.-Genevieve illustrates a remarkably similar exposition of the parts of a reading library. 'No elaborate guide to the building nor direction signs will be needed,' explained librarian Theodore Koch; 'There is no danger of a freshman getting lost in a labyrinth of dark corridors.' (pp. 189-191)

Rogers was aided in the library's planning and design by Theodore Wesley Koch (1872-1941), University Librarian from 1919 to 1941. In his honor, the library's north and south gardens are named the Koch Memorial Gardens. Groundbreaking was in June 1930. Construction took about two years and incorporated Koch's ideas in many features: a separate government publications department, a rare book room, a browsing room, research carrels, book exhibit area, seminar rooms, and efficient six-tier book stacks. There was seating for 900 in four large reading rooms and shelving for 500,000 books. The main entrance opened into a lobby lined with exhibit cases. To the left was the Reserve Reading Room and to the right the Commerce Library. Staircases to the top floor led to a spacious central room that provided access to the Main Reading Room, the Periodical Room, the Public Catalog, and the Circulation Desk.

Deering Library encompasses 1,500,000 cubic feet with a floor area of 90,000 square feet. Although Koch realized the need for a larger building, budget restrictions made that impossible. Because the library promised to be adequate for only a decade, plans for future expansion included six levels of book stacks or extension of the building to the east. Neither option was implemented.

The library was named for Charles H. Deering (1852-1927), Northwestern benefactor, and an art patron and connoisseur with close associations to important artists such as John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn. Deering met Sargent in 1876, before entering into business with his father, William Deering, in 1881. Sargent urged Deering to pursue a career in painting and Deering purchased many of Sargent's works. Charles Deering was heir to the farm implement company that, together with that of Cyrus McCormick, formed International Harvester. He was an in-law of the McCormicks. The library cost $1.25 million, donated in the main by the Deering, McCormick, and Danielson families, generous benefactors of Northwestern University for well over a century and spanning six generations.

Constructed of Wisconsin Lannon stone, Indiana Bedford limestone, Briar Hill sandstone, Winona travertine, granite and concrete by skilled craftsmen, the Deering Library features 68 magnificent window medallions designed by G. Owen Bonawit (1891-1971) and superb wood and stone carvings by sculptor Rene Paul Chambellan (1893-1955). Chambellan's wood and stone carvings symbolize the world of learning: the owl, the hourglass, the open book, the pen, and so forth. The Deering coat of arms, seals of the University and the State of Illinois, and bas-reliefs of University President Walter Dill Scott and Librarian Theodore Koch are also represented. Bonawit's glass medallions depict people and events associated with mythology, history, religion, literature, learning, and the history of the old Northwest. Carved linen-fold oak screens surmounted by lifelike sculpted wooden birds and beasts separate the lobby from the major rooms of the top floor.

Deering Library was extensively renovated in the early 1970s. In the early 1980s a central heating/ventilation/air-conditioning system was installed. The Deering Library currently houses University Archives, Government Publications and Maps on the first floor; the Music Library on the second floor; and the McCormick Library of Special Collections and the Art Library on the third floor.