No Obedient Underling | Newberry

No Obedient Underling

Henry Ives Cobb's rendering of the Newberry building

Henry Ives Cobb’s rendering of the Newberry building

William Frederick Poole, ca. 1894

Dear Walter: The Newberry building is so beautiful. Who designed it?

Jenny Arches-Chesterton, Evanston, IL

My Dear Ms Arches-Chesterton,

The news I relate herewith may elicit a Smirk or some other Expression of Bemusement, but no matter: the veracity of my Reply is beyond reproach. Construction of the Newberry building in which you presently stand (or sit, which is perhaps more likely the case) and enjoy the Fruits of Scholarship stirred up quite the controversy—a Charybdis of competing Wills and Visions toward the finale of the 19th C.

The Newberry opened its doors to the Public in 1887, and the Great Institution would christen more than a few additional portals with the act of Door-Opening. Amid a series of temporary locations, the Board of Trustees initiated plans for a permanent home for the library, securing the services of architect Henry Ives Cobb. Cobb was a gentleman of relative Callowness and inexperience (a mere 29!). An unaffiliated observer with a Cynical inclination might divine a concealed Motive: the selection of a youthful architect who would readily defer to President and Librarian William Frederick Poole. That Unaffiliated Observer with a Cynical Inclination might be correct.

Poole was something of a Luminary in the field of Library Science, and he harbored uncompromising views regarding the design of libraries. Chief among these was the belief that a library’s collection must be dispersed among its Rooms so that Readers may interface—there’s one for all you MILLENIALS—with the items directly. No centralization of storage, no Cabal of Corrupt Librarian-Gatekeepers for Old Mr. Poole! Neither would he countenance any Pomp or Grandiosity. “Convenience and utility shall never yield to architectural effect,” he once told the American Library Association.

Cobb proved no obedient underling, however. The young architect returned from a trip to Europe in 1889 with visions of centralized storage and Architectural Effect. Poole, ever-attuned to his Rivals, published his views in Chicago’s newspapers in order to galvanize Public sentiment in his Favor. The Newberry’s Board of Trustees sensed a public relations Fiasco of unprecedented proportions and intervened, placating Poole and retaining a few of Cobb’s architectural Predilections. A Symbol of this great compromise (of which Henry Clay would be most proud!) is the staircase which greets visitors in the Lobby: a grand unrolling of Marble whose ambition seems to have been constrained, tempered, what have you. Alas…