Happy 112th Birthday to Chicago's Blackstone Library

Happy 112th Birthday to Chicago's Blackstone Library

The Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 truly was a spectacle!  Roughly 600 acres and over 200 buildings occupied Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance from May 1st through October 30th.  One of those buildings was paid for entirely out of private subscriptions.  It was paid for by the members of the Merchant Tailors’ Exchanges and was aptly named the Merchant Tailors Building.

The building was situated on your left as you were walking across the bridge (Now known as the Darrow Memorial Bridge) that led from the North Pond just south of the Palace of Fine Arts (currently the Museum of Science and Industry.  It would have been on your left just before you reached the Illinois State Building.

The building was approximately 94 feet square which included the porticos on the east and west of the building and the rounded 14×22 attached reception rooms for men and women on the north and south side.  The reception rooms and the east entrance that had steps all the way down to the lagoon were for the private use of the subscribers who provided the $30,000 that it cost to build it.

The outside of the building was covered with Staff and painted white which had it resemble many of the great buildings of the fair only smaller.

The Merchant Tailors Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition

The Merchant Tailors Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

Solon Spencer Beman (October 4, 1853 – April 23, 1914) of Chicago was the architect and he had patterned the building after the Greek Temple known as the Erechtheion which was the last of the temples built as part of the Acropolis and finished in 402 B.C.   The Erechtheion was named after the demi-god Erechtheus, a mythical Athenian king.  It housed an ancient wooden cult statue of the goddess Athena.

On the left and right side of the east entrance there were two wreath encircled green panels.  On the left an engraved scripture read, “And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.”  On the right side it read, “Unto Adam also and his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins and clothed them.”

These scriptures were supportive of their belief that the making of clothes was one of the world’s oldest trades.

The floor from the entrance to the center floor under a low dome was constructed of fine ceramic mosaic tile from Maw & Co. out of Shropshire, England .  On its cream and gold colored walls there were eight mural paintings on canvas painted by Oliver Dennett Grover (January 29, 1860 – February 14, 1927).  Each mural represented a specific era in garment making history.  The first was a depiction of Adam and Eve making aprons from leaves; second, a barbarian scene; third, Egyptian; fourth, classical Greek; fifth, medieval ; sixth, Renaissance; seventh, Louis XIV to Louis XVI; and eighth, modern.

Some of the artifacts on exhibit were an oil painting entitled “The Tailor Shop” by Charles Durand and a flag carried by the merchant tailors of Boston on the occasion of General Washington’s visit to the city on October 17, 1789.

Also in 1893, the city of Branford, Connecticut was looking for donors to fund a city library and they were looking specifically for wealthy sons of Branford.

James Blackstone Library in Branford, CT

James Blackstone Library in Branford, CT

Timothy Beach Blackstone was born in Branford and was the son of James Blackstone and Sarah Beach.   Timothy was the millionaire President of the Chicago and Alton Railroad and had been so since 1861 when it was known as the Joliet and Chicago Railroad.   His father had served in the both the Connecticut House of Representatives and the Senate and had also served in the Connecticut militia.  Timothy Beach wanted to be the sole donor and wanted to present the library as a memorial to his father.

In many respects the James Blackstone Library was very similar to the Merchant Tailors Building.  It was designed by the same architect, S.S. Beman and the same artist, O.D. Grover who provided the artwork around the dome.   The artwork consisted of eight 6’ x 9’ paintings depicting the evolution of book making.  These are entitled, “Gathering the Papyrus,” “Records of the Pharaohs,” “Stories from the Iliad,” “Medieval Illumination,” “Venetian Copper-plate Printing,” “First Proof of Gutenberg Bible,” “Franklin Press,” and “Book Bindery, 1895.”   The library opened on June 17, 1896 at a cost of upwards of $300,000.

Timothy B. Blackstone died of pneumonia on May 26, 1900 leaving an estate of over $5 million.  His wife, Isabella Norton Blackstone, wished to present a branch library to the city of Chicago as a memorial to her husband and pledged $100,000. By the time the building was completed almost four years later the cost was upwards of $250,000.

The cornerstone of the Library was laid on June 23, 1902 by Mrs. Blackstone using the same trowel by which the Chicago City Library, now the Chicago Cultural Center, was laid.  Inside a cavity in the cornerstone was placed a copper-lined box containing a complete copy of the Public Library Board proceedings, catalogs, a copy of each of the Chicago daily newspapers and magazines, and a sketch of Timothy Blackstone’s life.

Timothy Beach Blackstone

Timothy Beach Blackstone

The exterior of the library was constructed using Concord granite and contains 13,794 square feet of space.  The building was also designed by Chicago Architect Solon Spencer Beman, and again modeled after his Merchant Tailors Building from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

The building has a Tiffany style dome with marble columns and four painted murals by Chicago artist Oliver Dennett Grover in the rotunda.  The murals have the titles of “Labor”, “Literature”, “Art”, and “Science”.

The Tiffany style dome and murals in the rotunda of the T.B. Blackstone Library

The Tiffany style dome and murals in the rotunda of the T.B. Blackstone Library

Once the library was completed it became the first permanent branch library building in the Chicago Public Library System and the only one built entirely using private funding.  Mrs. Blackstone turned the keys to the building and the deed over to the Library Board on January 8, 1904.

The library is located at the southeast corner of E. 49th Street and S. Blackstone Avenue even though the library retains its address of 4904 S. Lake Park Avenue.  The library is only 1.25 miles from the site of the original Merchant Tailors Building as the crow flies to Jackson Park and serves the Chicago Community Areas of Kenwood, Hyde Park, and Oakland.


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