Naperville reviewing push to turn historic library into local landmark

The property owner who wants to redevelop the old Nichols Library in downtown Naperville into four stories of shops, offices and condos has until July 11 to respond to an application to have the structure designated a local landmark.

Dwight Avram of Avram Builders hasn't received a copy of the landmark status application, which was submitted Monday to the city, so he was unable to comment Friday, spokeswoman Deb Newman said.

But the document has been mailed his way, meaning what likely will be a monthslong process of considering the application, submitted by preservationists Barb Hower and Charlie Wilkins, is underway.

Landmark status would put the 119-year-old building at 110 S. Washington St. under additional city oversight, meaning any proposed changes, construction or demolition that would be visible from the street must be reviewed by staff members and/or the historic preservation commission. No exterior features of the building can be changed while the landmark application is pending.

The application is in response to plans Avram presented May 16 that would include the former library's Washington Street facade within the construction of a mixed-use center called Nichols Place.

Avram said he intends to take down the western facade brick by brick, then reassemble it in the same order, either at the north end or the center of his proposed 80,000-square-foot development. He says this approach will honor the heritage of the historic library, which was completed in 1898 using a $10,000 donation from early Naperville teacher, author and businessman James Lawrence Nichols.

But Hower said that "peel and stick" approach falls short of what's mandated by a covenant placed on the property in the 1990s, when the city sold it to previous owner Truth Lutheran Church.

According to research Wilkins included in the landmark application, the covenant says all current and future owners of the building must "retain, protect and maintain" the Washington Street facade and the entrance foyer in their existing condition.

"You should try to do everything you can to hold onto a precious gem like this," preservationist Nancy Dvojack told the city council this week.

Preservationists say removing the bricks to reassemble them later wouldn't achieve the required retention, protection and maintenance because the 119-year-old masonry likely would deteriorate in the process.

"I think it would just be a travesty to tear down the old Nichols Library," resident Gail Diedrichesn told the council this week. "You should take a long, hard second look before you let a developer cut it down."

The original building was designed by architect Mifflin Emlen Bell in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, using brick and limestone dug from a nearby quarry. At the center, above its main entrance, the words "Nichols Library" are carved into the limestone.

"Personally it's always been a favorite of mine," Wilkins said. "When you think of Naperville and its downtown, it's one of the only remaining unique pieces of historic architecture that's left."

In 1939, a children's room was added on the east side of the building, which led to the removal of a porch facing Naperville's Central Park. In 1962, the library added a large south wing, which Wilkins and Hower say isn't included in their request for landmark status because its modernist style looks "incompatible and mismatched" with the historic portion of the building.

The landmark review process gives Avram a chance to respond and the option to ask for a 30-day extension.

After the city receives his response, the historic preservation commission will review the application during a public hearing and submit a recommendation to the council, which gets the final say.

"It comes down to what kind of town do we want to live in?" Wilkins said. "There's been so much development in recent years in the downtown. Do we want to live in a town that's all new construction and new development? Or do we want to live in a town that honors the past and has a lot of historic architecture as well?"

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  Dwight Avram of Avram Builders says he wants to tear down the western facade of the old Nichols Library in downtown Naperville brick by brick so it can be reassembled as part of an 80,000-square-foot mixed-use development. Marie Wilson/
Naperville's first public library opened in 1898 at 110 S. Washington St., built with a $10,000 donation from Naperville teacher, author and businessman James Lawrence Nichols. The structure, now 119 years old, is the subject of a local landmark status application and the focus of a redevelopment proposal. Courtesy of Naperville Public Library
One option for the proposed redevelopment of the historic former Nichols Library in downtown Naperville includes the 1898 building's western facade in the center of a new mixed-use facility for retail, offices and condos facing Washington Street. Courtesy of Avram Builders and Kluber Architects & Engineers
Another option for the proposed redevelopment of the historic former Nichols Library in downtown Naperville includes the 1898 building's western facade at its current location, which places it on the north side of an 80,000-square-foot mixed-use center for retail, offices and condos. Courtesy of Avram Builders and Kluber Architects & Engineers
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