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For Deering Library, 75 Years at the Heart of Northwestern

May 30, 2008
Editor's note: Charles Deering Library has been a companion to newer, larger University Library for almost as long as it was Northwestern's main library. Yet it is still "the symbolic heart of Northwestern University," as President Henry S. Bienen writes in a "greeting" for the new book celebrating Deering's 75th anniversary. The following brief history, drawn from "Deering Library: An Illustrated History" (Northwestern University Press, 2008), sketches Deering's beginnings and its roles through the years down to today.

Seventy years after its opening, Northwestern was firmly established as a university, but President Walter Dill Scott noted a pressing need in his annual report for 1927: The Evanston campus lacked a library adequate for a major educational institution, particularly one attempting to encourage graduate work.

That same year, Charles Deering of International Harvester Company died and left a bequest of $500,000 for a project of Northwestern's choosing. University librarian T. W. Koch suggested that the administration seek the support of the Deering family for a "splendid living memorial" in the form of a new library.

The Deerings readily agreed that using the bequest for a new library would be a fitting tribute to Charles' love of books, as well as to the family's dedication to Northwestern. William Deering (1826–1913), Charles' father, had been president of the university board of trustees and funded the construction of Fisk Hall.

Additional gifts from Charles' widow and children brought the library fund to $1 million by 1930. As soon as the Deerings' full gift was announced, Koch set off for New York to meet with university architect James Gamble Rogers to discuss plans for the Charles Deering Library.

By the time he received this commission, Rogers had designed dozens of Collegiate Gothic buildings, including most notably Yale's Sterling Memorial Library. Of the eight buildings Rogers designed for the Evanston campus, Deering Library was the most important in style and grandeur. The building committee, led by President Scott, insisted on a neo-Gothic library of the sort Rogers had become known for. With its stained-glass window medallions, intricate carvings and statues, ornamental inscriptions and embellished, vaulted ceilings, the library was meant to evoke Oxford and Cambridge and an age when learning and humanism were protected within Gothic walls and quadrangles.

Built on the crest of a low ridge paralleling Sheridan Road, Deering Library was finished in just over a year and a half, opening in January 1933. The exterior is of Lannon stone, a very hard limestone from Wisconsin, trimmed on the corners with gray Bedford limestone from Indiana. Although Deering was constructed during the early years of the Great Depression, its carvings, paneling and stained-glass window insets evoke opulence. The sculptor who designed the wood and stone carvings, René Paul Chambellan, and the designer of the stained-glass window medallions, G. Owen Bonawit, had worked with Rogers on other projects. When it came to choosing motifs for Deering Library, they found an eager co-conspirator in bibliophile Koch, whose traditional tastes and appreciation of craftsmanship were accompanied by a strong whimsical streak. The design motifs reflected — sometimes in a humorous way — the educational aspect of the building, with references to culture, literature, history and the academic tradition.

The new library's interior spaces were as carefully thought out as its design elements. The focal point was the Reading Room, which filled the entire west side on the second floor and exemplified Koch's faith in the inspirational effects of Gothic style. At the south end of the Reading Room was the Browsing Room, with many books donated by alumni; at the north end the Rare Book Room housed a collection Koch hoped to build on. The stack areas — closed to undergraduates — contained 84 carrels for the use of graduate students and faculty.

When it opened, Deering Library contained close to 400,000 volumes, counting pamphlets. The 34 staff members were assisted by a few dozen students receiving government aid. Throughout the years of Depression belt-tightening, Koch kept up his demands on behalf of the library, continuing to lobby for books and salaries. An era ended in the library when Koch died unexpectedly in March 1941. Two years later, the library gardens were named the Koch Memorial Gardens in honor of his devotion. Not surprising for so detail-minded a man, Koch's vision had included the exterior surroundings of the library, and he had continued to add plants around the building as he could acquire them.

World War II affected all aspects of library operations, from acquisitions to space usage to staffing. The Commerce Reading Room was turned over to the Naval V-12 program. Budget cuts forced students to borrow some required books from the Evanston Public Library. Library staff were told to remove books relating to explosives and to list all Japanese-related holdings.

The millionth volume was added to the library's collection in 1950, presented by 30-year-old Roger S. McCormick, a grandson of Charles Deering, in honor of his parents, Chauncey and Marion Deering McCormick.
In 1951, the year of the university's centennial, the library took the step — rare among academic libraries at the time — of opening its stacks to all students. Pneumatic tubes, conveyor belts and library assistants stationed in the stacks awaiting call slips became things of the past.
By 1954 the library had nearly 1.5 million volumes, almost three times its intended capacity. A "Library Annex," formed from the basement that remained after Fayerweather Hall was torn down, provided off-site storage for 200,000 volumes, but it was seen as a temporary solution.

In 1961 a new library building was proposed as part of a building program based on pushing the campus eastward onto lakefill. The new main library, connected to Deering by a corridor and a third-floor link, was dedicated in 1970. Designed by architect Walter Netsch of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the three-towered structure reflected an aesthetic as modern as Deering's was traditional.

With the opening of University Library, Deering took on the role of site of the specialized holdings, including University Archives, Special Collections, Government Documents. The Transportation Library, the Art Collection, and the Music Library were later added. To preserve the collections, security, heating, and ventilation systems needed to be updated. A $1.5 million modernization of Deering was completed in 1986.

The Deering family continued its philanthropy to Northwestern libraries. Charles Deering McCormick (1915–94) and his brothers, grandsons of Charles Deering, contributed the funds for the construction of the south tower of the new library. Charles and his son Hilleary presented and shelved Deering Library's 3-millionth volume in 1983. Charles and his wife, Nancy, later created a humanities collections endowment in Hilleary's memory, and still later Nancy endowed the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections in her husband's memory.

Today Deering Library is firmly entrenched as a symbol of the university, as photogenic and recognized as University Hall. Nearly 19 generations of students have passed through its doors. Like the Gothic cathedrals that were its inspiration, Deering was built to last forever — a fitting setting for the collections of special distinction that are housed within its walls.

Public guided tours of Deering Library and its special collections -- including the art collection, government and geographic information and data services, the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Music Library and University Archives -- will be conducted on an ongoing basis during the summer and fall.
Topics: University News