Maze Library was a place you could go to be launched into the wider world, where the future lived. There was church and school, the ballfields, candy stores, and Maze Branch. All the institutions a kid needed in South Oak Park in the late 1950s, early ’60s. Maze was where I went to dream.
Biographies covered the south wall of the kids’ section, raised several steps up from the main floor, split-level style. John Tunis sports novels were found against the west wall. Maze is where I opened my first World Book Encyclopedia. School assignments forced my first encounters with the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, that era’s cumbersome equivalent of Google, a treasure trove of sources, not all of them located at Maze, leading me occasionally to the modernity of the Main Library.
But I rarely wanted more than Maze had to offer, a three-block walk from my house, which was odyssey enough back then.
Coziness and low-tech charm still define the space. Maze is exquisitely quaint. Anyone trying to lure a friend to live in Oak Park should take them to the Lake Theatre, Austin Gardens, Scoville Park, the Conservatory, Unity Temple, the Wright Home & Studio, and the Hemingway Birth Home and Childhood Home to whet their appetite and pique their interest. Save Maze for last — to seal the deal.
As we get older and come to terms with the transitory nature of life’s impermanence, it is comforting to have at least one shrine to innocence preserved. For some, it’s Wrigley Field. For me it’s Maze — an incubator of dreams, a cocoon, and a launching pad. Not a labyrinth but a name: Adele Maze, one of those fortunate few who had a single, all-consuming focus in life — a branch librarian for decades, ruling it with a firm but benevolent hand until she expired right here at the front desk in 1957, and from then on it bore her name.
The building, which opened in 1936 (same year as the Lake theatre), expanded during renovation some years back at a cost of more than $2M, but it’s still a gem, designed by Prairie-School architect E.E. Roberts.
Patronized by loyalists who come as much for the ambiance as the resources, this is a place designed to make kids fall in love with books — and libraries. It’s cozy enough to feel at home but connected enough to provide a portal to the world writ large. A kid could sample that world and begin to imagine his place in it. Books are better at that than television or movies. You can be absorbed by a book — and the world it creates — for days, even weeks, at a time.
Childhood is mainly about biding time, waiting to grow up. One of my imaginings involved writing something someday that might enchant a child as much as I was charmed, sitting in a comfortable nook, reading and dreaming out the window as seasons slowly passed.
There I found Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books, Onion John, and the Bounty Trilogy (Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island) to name just a portion of the bounty that awaited.
Mostly I read biographies of famous men and women — actors, athletes, soldiers, explorers, doctors, presidents, writers and teachers. I hauled them home and camped all summer long on our screened-in front porch exploring life scenarios that led to the fulfillment of dreams. I figured no matter what life might throw at me, I could handle it as long as I had books to read. I would never be bored.
Maze is probably the finest example of gingerbread architecture, like entering a scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a fairyland of woodwork. Overhead, the ornate triangular cross-beams flow down the walls, ending in carved scrolls, with flowers in relief. The original built-in white oak bookshelves still line the walls. The adult reading area features a gas fireplace flanked by two leather reading chairs and a mantle, above which hangs a painting by Carl Krafft, one of Oak Park’s best-known artists.
Outside, the red-brick-and-limestone façade is warmly lit at night, with a welcoming entry, now with a cleverly-disguised ramp making it accessible to wheelchairs — without having to remove the original cement front steps.
Something about the quiet industry inside a library soothes minds and souls. It’s like a church without solemnity and a living room without the bustle and noise.
In autumn, window panes are adorned with many-colored construction-paper leaves, followed by snowflakes in winter, then Valentine’s Day hearts, St. Patrick’s Day shamrocks, and pastel eggs or flowers for Easter, signaling the longed-for arrival of spring.
At once insular and connected, this library provides an oasis, a comfort zone, brimming with stirring tales of adventure. I wish I had a list of every book I ever checked out of Maze and read in my youth. Better yet, I wish I could touch the books themselves, smell the pages, and flip through the memories.
From time to time, we all feel a longing to revisit childhood. Whenever I need to be reminded of how magical life felt back then, I’m drawn to Maze. It wasn’t “magic” at all — just the small miracle of being alive and wondering how life might unfold. Life is “storybook” by nature. This place confirms it.
Stenciled on one of the walls here is a testament by Adele Maze from 1954:
“All of these activities were fun for both youngsters and grown-ups and were instrumental in making all realize that the library was a friendly, happy place as well as a storehouse of books and knowledge.”
Maze is a touchstone. I keep coming back because, occasionally, I need to revisit dreams once dreamed and the happy spaces that blessed my childhood.
Outside on the south patio is a brick with my name on it, inscribed: “A childhood well spent here.”
Maze Branch Library opened again this week following a too-long pandemic absence.