Essay by Iker Gil and Julie Michiels
Working with a colleague who is designing the renovation and expansion of a library in his hometown, architect Julie Michiels was curious to know who had designed her hometown library. It never occurred to her that part of the story of the Helen Plum Library would involve the same famed architecture firm that has designed some of the most remarkable buildings in Chicago and around the world. It is also the firm where she works: Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM). With the future of the current home of the library up in the air as the construction of a new library is well under way, she and Iker Gil embarked on learning more about the history of the library, the people involved, the park that it is connected to, as well as putting forward the need of considering the adaptive reuse of this civic building that can continue to serve the community of Lombard, Illinois.
Originally part of Potawatomi Native American landscape, the Village of Lombard, located twenty miles straight west from downtown Chicago, was officially incorporated in 1869. It was named after Chicago banker and real estate developer Josia Lewis Lombard who, along with General Benjamin Sweet and Captain Silas Janes, platted the town (then known as Babcock’s Grove) in 1868 and petitioned the state for a charter.1 It would take almost four decades since its incorporation until it could benefit from the first town library. It was in 1905 when a room behind the sanctuary of the First Church, a wooden Gothic chapel dedicated in 1870, became home to 3,000 books that came from the personal collection of Josiah Torrey Reade, second President of the Lombard Town Board.2
The library operated in that space until 1927 when it moved to the former house of Colonel William Rattle Plum and his wife, Helen Maria Williams Plum. The Colonel had been a Master Telegrapher during the Civil War and, after studying Law at Yale University, he and Helen moved to the Midwest and settled in Lombard in 1868. During a Grand Tour of Europe, the Plums fell in love with lilacs, purchasing two cultivars that became the start of their remarkable garden of lilacs. Helen died in 1924 and upon the death of the Colonel in 1927, the house and grounds were donated to the village with the stipulation that they had to be used as a free public library and public park respectively.3
The lilac garden that the Plums had enjoyed became the Lombard Community Garden, the first public park in Lombard, now known as Lilacia Park. Following Plum’s death in 1927, the Lombard Park District was formed, and they hired prominent Danish landscape architect Jens Jensen, who had immigrated to the US in 1884, to design the park. As superintendent of the West Park System, Jensen had designed many of Chicago’s parks including Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, Douglass Park, Pulaski Park, and Columbus Park. The Village of Lombard paid Jensen $600 to execute his design for the park. He maintained an office in the Plum barn on the property for three years while supervising the construction of the park. In Lombard, Jensen created flagstone paths, limestone benches, a limestone waterfall and pool, and circular enclosures for seating to bring people together.4 His prairie-style landscape design included planting tulips, as they bloom around the same time as lilacs. Following its construction in 1930, Lilacia Park quickly became the space where the community came together and celebrated festivities and parades. With more than two hundred varieties of lilacs and fifty varieties of tulips, its significant contribution to horticultural history in the United States was recognized on May 9, 2019, when the park was named to the National Register of Historic Places.5
The library found a permanent home in the Plum’s former house for more than three decades. However, the needs of the library grew over the years and more space was ultimately required. To address the situation, a referendum to build a new two-story library was passed in 1961 and architects Wondries & Johnson of Lake Bluff was the architectural firm hired for the design of the new building. Two years later, a brand new two-story 12,000-square foot library built into a hillside and next to Lilacia Park opened to the public at the intersection of Maple Street and Park Avenue, close to Main Street and the train station. With the construction of the new building, the Plum residence that had served as the home of the library until then was demolished. The new brick building had a pitched roof, gently curved, and with ample overhangs on all four façades. Large windows provided light and views to the outside. Inside, the program was split between adult services located on the ground floor and the youth services located on the second floor of the building.6
The need for more space over the years required a new addition and, in 1976, a library tax increase was approved by the residents of Lombard.7 The selected architect for the expansion and renovation was Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a firm that two years prior had completed the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world at the time and for nearly the next twenty-five years.
Before going into the details of the project, it is worth reflecting on the person that would design the renovation and addition of the library. Robert Diamant was the SOM design and managing partner in charge of the project. Born in Budapest on April 2, 1922, he became a prisoner at Mauthausen in Austria in January 1945. Two months later, he was evacuated to Gunskirchen Lager, a satellite concentration camp, from where he was liberated in May of that year. After studying architectural engineering at the Polytechnical Institute of Hungary, he and fellow student John Macsai received B’nai B’rith scholarships in 1947, bringing them to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.8 Graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture in 1949, he joined the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill that same year. At SOM, he climbed the ranks: he became a participating associate in 1957, an associate partner in 1963, and a partner in 1973. Diamant’s work at SOM focused on high-rise and low-rise office buildings, multi-use complexes, and research and industrial developments. His major projects include the John Hancock Center, Olympia Centre, NBC Tower at Cityfront Center, the Franklin Center, and Harris Bank in Chicago; General Electric Company in Waukesha, Wisconsin; One Marine Midland Plaza in Rochester, New York; 60 State Street and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Materials Science and Engineering in Boston; the Terraces at Perimeter Center in Atlanta; and Latter Center West and Pan American Life Center in New Orleans.9 He was elevated to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) College of Fellows in 1981 and retired from SOM in 1988. Robert Diamant died in 2015 at the age of 91.
Going back to the project, the addition turned the library into a 34,300-square-feet building, adding almost twice the amount of square feet of the original building. The additional space allowed further expansion of existing library services as well as the addition of new ones. To meet the requirements of the client, SOM chose a below-grade solution. The resulting structure allowed maximum use of the limited site while minimizing visual intrusion on the park. The addition to the library was made possible by an arrangement with the Lombard Park District to construct a ground level addition into the hillside while providing a landscaped plaza extending out from the second-floor entrances of the existing building. The Lombard Park District requirements specified that any additional land used had to be replaced by corresponding landscaped areas open to the public.
The exposed coffered-slab ceiling of the addition served two purposes: It is both the roof of the primarily below-grade addition and simultaneously the paved and landscaped plaza adjacent to the renovated building. This plaza became a visual extension of the surrounding park. The coffered roof and skylights provided natural light over the main lounge area that featured plantings below and recessed fluorescent lighting within the imposed floor-to-floor height. The lighting consultant for the project was Claude R. Engle, who was married to Margaret Graham, sister of SOM design partner Bruce Graham. His lighting consulting firm, established in 1968, would become one of the most preeminent firms, collaborating with architects such as Minoru Yamasaki, Norman Foster, I.M. Pei, Arthur Erikson, and Harry Seidler. Over the years they have worked on projects such as the US Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., the Grand Louvre in Paris, the Great Court at the British Museum in London, the New York Public Library, and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in New Haven. Projects they worked on around the time of the Helen Plum Library addition include the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center in Chicago, World Trade Center in New York, and Temple Beth El in Detroit.10
In terms of the program, all public services were provided in the new facility on the ground floor, along with a public auditorium (with its own entrance) and staff room. Technical processing, the board room, administrative offices, and office space for the Lombard Park District were on the second floor. The library leased office space to the Lombard Park District for twenty years in exchange for the land required for the addition and the original entrance to the library was turned into the direct access to their offices. The original building was remodeled to provide a new accessible main entrance, a new circulation desk, and ground floor library services extending into the addition. The addition contained all the library’s public facilities as well as a 126-seat community meeting room in the basement. The new addition allowed consolidation of formerly separate adult and youth’s circulation and technical processing areas. Other less visible improvements included a multi-zone, fully automated HVAC system in the new structure equipped with an economizer cycle and added humidifier capacities to ensure proper book storage conditions. The underfloor distribution system included concealed ducting along vent stacks built into bookshelf units. The renovation and addition were completed in 1978, introducing a new and improved library to Lombard residents.
The need for a new building was brought up once again two decades after the opening of the SOM renovation and addition. At the turn of the century, a citizen’s committee defined a long-term plan to address the need for more space but also making sure that the library would remain in Lombard’s downtown. Shortly after, a referendum to fund a new building that would double the available space and increase its operating budget was defeated. In 2015, with input from Engberg Anderson Architects and Frederick Quinn Construction, the Library Board explored different options and considered that replacing the building would be a more cost-effective solution rather than making repairs on the existing building. The proposed new building would be 50,000 sf and was expected to cost $23.8 million. A year after the board decision, a referendum for a new building and an increased operating budget would be approved by a narrow margin.11 It is evident from records that during the process that led to the referendum as well as long after its approval, the Library Board and Lombard Park District, despite the legal arrangements that affect the property and involve both parties, did not see eye to eye. The accusations and controversies that ensued made the future of the building more complicated.12
Despite putting forward a proposal to build on the site of the current library, implying the demolition of the existing building, in 2020 the Library Board determined that relocating the library to a new site half a mile south from the existing site would be a better option to allow construction to take place in a single phase without interruption to day-to-day operations. Groundbreaking on the new building, designed by Engberg Anderson Architects, took place on June 15, 2021, and completion is expected to take place in early 2023.13 With this, the current library building will face a new reality and an uncertain future.
At a March 15, 2022, board meeting, Claudia Krauspe, executive director of the Helen Plum Library, presented a summary of the multiple intergovernmental agreement considerations regarding the future of the current site.14 Over the years, the library made several agreements with the Lombard Park District and the Village of Lombard in terms of easements, air rights, parking, and first rights of purchase. All those legal aspects along with how a new owner and uses align with the mission of the library while providing an economically viable solution will have to be considered.
Not too long ago, similar aspects were to be considered for a different property and the outcome should be a warning for the fate of the library: the demolition of the DuPage Theatre and DuPage Shoppes. Opened in 1928, the 800-seat theater was designed by R.G. Wolff, who had worked for the Chicago architecture firm of Rapp and Rapp. The firm designed over 400 theaters, becoming one of the leading designers of early twentieth century movie palaces. Due to its significance, the DuPage Theatre and DuPage Shoppes were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 but ultimately closed in 1995. Multiple attempts to save it took place over the years, including a 2005 plan for the revitalization of downtown Lombard centered around the theater.15 However, in May 2007, the DuPage Theater was torn down. The land where the building stood remained vacant until 2021, when ground was broken for a new $30 million luxury apartment community that will include 118 residences.16
We are hoping that sensibilities about the built environment have changed since the theater demolition in 2007, and that the current Helen Plum Library can find a new civic use to honor the wishes of Colonel William Plum and Helen Plum and, more importantly, benefit the current and future needs of the Village of Lombard. It is a building that even today remains clear in its principles, with a combination of world-renowned architecture and landscape architecture that anchor Lombard and its community at its very core. This is something that not everyone can claim. Throughout the years, we have seen multiple cases of successful adaptive reuse efforts with civic buildings finding a new purpose that is socially, economically, and environmentally viable. We have also seen a fair share of rushed and uninformed decisions that caused the demolition of architecturally significant buildings, a decision later regretted. As Lombard prepares itself to celebrate the opening of a new home for its library, it is worth celebrating the history of its current home and exploring how the Wondries & Johnson- and SOM-designed building can continue to contribute to the current and future vitality of Lombard.
Thanks to Karen Widi, Manager of Library, Records and Information Services at SOM, for her invaluable help providing information and photographs of the renovation and addition by SOM. Thanks also to the Lombard Historical Society staff for providing the images of Lilacia Park as designed by Jens Jensen and the Helen Plum Memorial Library during and shortly after its construction. You can find more information on their website: www.lombardhistory.org.
The Helen Plum Library today
2. Ibid. ↵
3. Ibid. ↵
4. Jean Crockett, “A Look at Lilacia Park – Jens Jensen,” Lombard Historical Society, May 4, 2020. https://www.lombardhistory.org/blog/2020/5/4/a-look-at-lilacia-park-jens-jensen ↵
5. “Lilacia Park Historic District,” National Register of Historic Places, Registration Form. ↵
6. “About,” Helen Plum Library, Our Next Steps. https://helenplumnextchapter.org/about-us/#OurHistory ↵
7. Ibid. ↵
8. Shawn Vanness, “I Bore Witness Robert Diamant,” Miami University, University Libraries, Apr 22, 2020. https://www.lib.miamioh.edu/2020-04-22-I-bore-witness-Robert-Diamant ↵
9. “In Memory: Robert Diamant, Former SOM Partner,” SOM, January 14, 2015. https://www.som.com/news/in-memory-robert-diamant-former-som-partner/ ↵
11. “2016 General Election,” DuPage County, November 8, 2016. https://www.dupageresults.gov/IL/DuPage/71876/Web02.193546/#/ ↵
12. “Park District QA on Helen Plum Library,” Lombard Park District, January 23, 2019. https://lombardparks.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Park-District-QA-on-Helen-Plum-Library.pdf ↵
13. “Groundbreaking at the Site of the New Helen Plum Library,” Helen Plum Library, June 23, 2021. https://www.helenplum.org/blog-entries/groundbreaking-site-new-helen-plum-library ↵
14. “Plans for 110 West Maple Street,” Helen Plum Library, March 16, 2022. https://www.helenplum.org/blog-entries/plans-110-west-maple-street ↵
15. William Grady and Tribune staff reporter, “Theater rehab plan faces skeptics,” Chicago Tribune, April 7, 2005. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2005-04-07-0504070319-story.html ↵
16. “Lombard hosts groundbreaking for luxury apartments,” Holladay Properties, LLC, June 18, 2021. https://www.holladayproperties.com/blog/lilac-groundbreaking/ ↵
Iker Gil is the founder of MAS Studio, Editor in Chief of the nonprofit MAS Context, and Executive Director of the SOM Foundation. Gil has edited or coedited several books including Radical Logic: On the Work of Ensamble Studio and Shanghai Transforming. He has curated multiple exhibitions including Exhibit Columbus 2020–2021, Nocturnal Landscapes, Poured Architecture: Sergio Prego on Miguel Fisac, and BOLD: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago, part of the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, and was Associate Curator of the US Pavilion for the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. He has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).
www.mas-studio.com | @MASContext
Julie Michiels is an architect and the design leader for SOM Chicago’s Interiors Practice. She has two decades of experience as an architect, interior designer, and project leader, with an extensive portfolio which includes civic, residential, commercial, mixed-use, transportation, health, and education projects. She has also been a contributing editor of MAS Context since 2009.