The library's long legacy

First there was Scoville Institute

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By Doug Deuchler


When people look at old images of the building, they usually comment that it looks so picturesque "just like a castle." Another frequent response: "What a shame we were not more architecturally sensitive" in the early 1960s when "that lovely, massive Romanesque structure fell to the wrecking ball." They are referring to the stately, elegant structure known as the Scoville Institute, Oak Park's first library.

But, of course, there are always at least two sides to every story.

"I arrived in the 1950s," remembers former head librarian Barbara Ballinger. "Frankly, that building had not been viable for a very long time. There were no elevators, let alone air conditioners. Everything was extremely crowded. There was a very treacherous winding staircase, which made library usage impossible for handicapped or elderly patrons. All the magazines were stored on the third floor in stacks on the old built-in gymnasium bleachers. We tried to pass a tax referendum for a new library three different times. Each time it failed, we'd start working on our new campaign the very next morning."

Virginia Cassin, OPRF class of 1942 and former village clerk, recalls: "It was a gorgeous Richardsonian building with tons of wood, art glass, fireplaces, and enormous wooden furniture. But it was not really suitable to the needs of the community any more. It was not only obsolete, it was frankly a big old fire hazard. The 'attic,' crammed with heaps of magazines and newspapers, was always cited by the fire department as highly dangerous."

Lee Brooke, historian and local writer, remembers: "When I was a boy in the 1930s, I especially recall that very wide, steep staircase going up to the second floor, narrowing very severely as you climbed. By this time, of course, all the gymnasium apparatus on the top floor had been sold off. Every inch of space in the building seemed to be in use."

Ballinger adds: "There were indeed a few villagers who had conflicted feelings about taking the building down, but mostly people recognized it had become so crowded and outdated that we had to start over."

But let's back up to the beginning …

Oak Park had become a booming village right after the Great Chicago Fire (1871). Prosperous families were moving into the community at a rapid rate. But there was no cultural focus in those early years — no community center.

Enter James Scoville (1825-1893), a self-made millionaire and voracious reader. He lived in a 20-room Victorian mansion situated at the top of the hill where the World War I monument (Peace Triumphant) now stands in the newly-redesigned, centrally-located park that bears his name. That park was his front yard.

Following a boyhood of extreme poverty and in true Horatio Alger fashion, Scoville pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become the president of the Prairie State Bank in the Loop. In 1868, just before Oak Park's population boom, he became a real estate entrepreneur by purchasing and developing much of the "Ridgeland Zone" that is now eastern Oak Park. He supervised every detail of his subdivision, from laying out the streets to planting the trees. But Scoville is doubtless best remembered for his 1886 gift of a library to his community.

Of course, he was not strictly thinking about a lending library. He wanted a cultural and civic center, complete with a gymnasium, that would be financed by dues-paying subscribers.

The Scoville Institute was dedicated 125 years ago this month in 1888. Mr. Scoville donated the lot, the building, and an endowment for salaries and upkeep, which totaled $115,000. In contemporary value he was giving Oak Park a gift of $3½ million.

The building was constructed of Bedrock limestone with a slate roof and copper gutters. The woodwork on the first floor was all oak, with mahogany on the second floor. There were stained-glass windows and art tiles in the fireplaces. An 1888 dedication brochure declares, "The Scoville Institute is a thing of beauty that will prove to be a joy forever."

For subscribers only

The new facility was an immediate success. By early 1889, just a year after its construction, there had been 1,075 library cards issued — this, mind you, in a village of only 3,907 residents.

Patrons could choose a book on the first floor from the collection of 1,655 volumes, attend a lecture or cultural event in one of the rather small "parlors" on the second floor, or work out in the institute's gymnasium on the third floor. Used by both men and women — though at separate times, of course — the gym was often called "The Attic" because it was all wooden, had low rafters, with bleachers for spectators on two sides.

In the 1890s, open-air concerts were performed on the lawn — now Scoville Park — to help fund the upkeep of the institute and purchase new materials. Many local families donated their own personal book collections to be catalogued and circulated. But the place was still a private subscription library, not a public library.

The Scoville Institute was never open all day in the early decades, like the library is now. It opened and closed at intervals. The hours were 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., 3 to 5:30, and 7 to 9:30.

There were no open stacks and the rules were very strict. There was to be no talking at any time. An 1896 booklet of regulations specifies, "The Reception Room alone is intended for conversation and oral exchange of thought. Laughing, frivolity, or noisy demonstrations of any kind are strictly prohibited in the Reading Room, the Rotunda, and all other parts of the building."

Going public

By 1902, the library had grown to a collection of one library card for every 2 persons living in the community. The collection had grown to 9,000 books.

That year, Oak Park broke away from Cicero Township to form an independent municipality. In 1903, the new village passed a tax referendum to support a public library, so the institution was no longer the sole responsibility of subscribers. That is why the Oak Park Public Library is celebrating its 110th birthday even though the building opened 125 years ago.

In most vintage views of the Scoville Institute, you can see the First Congregational Church next door to the west, where the Hemingway family worshiped. It was situated on another lot that James Scoville donated.

In 1916, lightning struck the 190-foot Gothic steeple and the church burned to the ground in a spectacular fire, dangerously close to the library. The "new" church construction incorporated many of the scorched stones saved from that destroyed house of worship. Check it out next time you're over there: Many of the stones are still blackened nearly a century after the fire. The church merged with First Presbyterian (now Calvary) to become First United Church of Oak Park in 1975.

Oak Park Library was actually the first in the region with a children's department and a trained children's librarian. Generous local millionaire banker John Farson helped launch the new venture. In 1897, the Oak Park press described the "unique low shelving, the pleasing pictures, and the tiny furniture."

Miss Helen Meachem, the first children's librarian, was hired at a salary of $10 per month.

In 1906, the family of Dr. Clarence and Grace Hemingway lived in the frame home to the north next door on Grove Avenue (then open to traffic) in what's now referred to as "the Hemingway interim house" while they waited for construction to finish on their new residence at Iowa and Kenilworth. Seven-year-old Ernie and his 8-year-old sister, Marcelline, were avid readers who spent much of their free time in the Scoville Institute.

"The librarians often had to send the kids home; they were both there so long and so often," explains Cassin, who, with her late husband Bill, was pivotal in the restoration of the Hemingway Birth Home and is still a board member of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park-River Forest.

"The library looked bigger than it actually was inside," recalls Lee Brooke. "But I remember being really excited by books in that old place. I was especially captivated by Robert Louis Stevenson. I think the books those librarians plugged me into nurtured in me my love of travel and satisfied my need for adventure."

By the late 1930s, however, the library which originally served a community of less than 4,000 people was now badly overcrowded. Oak Park's population had swollen to 72,023.

A 1938 WPA film designed to nudge the community into passing a library referendum shows patrons waiting in line to get their chance at the card catalog. Staff members carry heavy trucks of books up the steep flight of stairs. Bare electric light bulbs dangle in the stacks. A librarian with a flashlight is seen hunting for periodicals in heaps on the old bleachers in the hot, airless "attic."

In 1952 Ralph A. Ulveling, director of the Detroit Public Library, headed an evaluation committee reporting on the Oak Park Public Library. In his follow-up report, he conveyed his shock: "Though I have seen many libraries throughout the country with rather poor quarters, never have I found one which is so poorly adapted to modern library service or which is so hopelessly inadequate. ... It lacks every fundamental requirement for a public library."

In that year (1952) the average annual income in Oak Park was $6,247 (the national average was $4,521). Oak Park, the prosperous "world's largest village," was in great need of a new library, the study advised. The implication in the survey was that the village could probably afford it.

Ulveling went on to describe the physical layout of the old Scoville Institute: "Like any public building of the 19th century, a disproportionately large part of the structure is taken up with the halls, corridors, and the imposing stairway. The octagonal shape of all the interior walls ... restricts severely any effective use that can be made of that space. There are no meeting rooms other than the librarian's small office or in the basement corridor."


In 1962, however, a referendum finally passed and the 75-year-old structure was razed rather quickly.

"Lots of 'souvenirs' from that demolition site were saved or scavenged — trim and tiles and such — and found their way into private homes," Cassin says. "Things are still coming to light. In the Hemingway Museum, we have a half-moon art glass window from the old library that someone salvaged and gave us."

During the construction of the new second library, the entire collection was moved to temporary quarters in the old Lowell School (the site that later became the vast eyesore "Stankus Hole" and is now 100 Forest Place). Hundreds of Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, and an army of other volunteers formed a three-block-long "book brigade" that passed the entire collection to the interim site at Lake and Forest.

"The old library building was grand," Cassin adds, "but many of us liked to think that Mr. Scoville, always wanting the best for his community, would approve of the progress being made by replacing and updating the library while still using the wonderful gift of land he gave us. It's the perfect location, so centrally located."

In 1964 a new Oak Park Library was completed on the site of the old Scoville Institute. A second-story addition was completed in 1977. The third and current structure, a popular hub and true community center, was erected on the same site, opening onto Scoville Park in 2003.

The "new" library is now celebrating its 10th anniversary while the Oak Park Public Library is marking its 110th birthday.

Next time you visit the library, be sure to notice that the imposing modern building still bears the inscription "Scoville Institute" on the front.

Reader Comments

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Posted: October 2nd, 2013 12:29 PM

A thoroughly enjoyable read, made more so by minimal reference to the Hemingway family. Thank you!

Christine Vernon from Oak Park, IL  

Posted: October 2nd, 2013 10:10 AM

Maybe going forward the Village will be more thoughtful about the destruction of landmarks. The whole 'repurposing' movement , historic buildings included is such a wonderful use of resources. Architects and builders seem to be able to make what seems like even the most obsolete buildings useful today. The Scoville Library could have been our cultural center or home for our Historical Society. What a piece of architecture it was and what a great example of the use of limestone. A good article!

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