Developer: Naperville's historic Nichols Library isn't what it used to be

A redevelopment proposal for the old Nichols Library in downtown Naperville is sparking a preservationist sentiment among some in town who are bent on keeping the building on Washington Street for decades to come.

But the building's interior already looks a lot different from what it did when the 1898 building opened as the city's original library, warns the developer, who has plans that only preserve a small part of the building.

The wide entrance hall with its carved mantle has been removed. The arches leading to a reading room and the book room with stacks are no longer there. A veranda that used to overlook Central Park on the east side of the structure is a thing of the past. And some of the building is suffering from mold and the deterioration of the exterior brick and stone.

Developer Dwight Avram of Avram Builders wants to make sure the public knows these features are already gone as he promotes his plan to tear down the structure but preserve its Washington Street facade and incorporate it into a collection of new shops, restaurants, offices and condos.

Avram spokeswoman Deb Newman says that's why she posted photos on the website that illustrate some of the renovations made to the building since the 1930s - especially after Truth Lutheran Church bought it from the city in the 1990s. Photos also show structural issues requiring repair that the developer refers to as "the reality of a 119-year-old building."

"It became apparent that there was a lot of memory about what was in the building that no longer exists," Newman said. "We thought it would be helpful to document the fact that much of what people remember is not actually there."

But those leading the charge to have the structure designated as a local landmark say the brick-and-limestone building at 110 S. Washington St. is worth maintaining despite the way it has evolved. Preservationists say its structural flaws are expected for a building of its age and are fixable, although they don't yet know at what cost.

"The whole point of seeking landmark status for the building is to protect the exterior. Landmark status would have no control over the interior," said Charlie Wilkins, one of the preservationists hoping for additional city protection of the building. "When I wrote the petition for landmark status, I was already well aware that the interior has been changed drastically. I was under no illusion that it was still in its library form."

The landmark status application, submitted June 5, sets into motion a review process that involves a period for the developer to respond, hearings by the city's preservation commission and an eventual decision by the city council about whether the property should be protected. Avram has until Tuesday to submit his response or seek a 30-day extension before the preservation hearings will begin.

Landmark status would put the former library 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.

"What we're more concerned about is just that the building proper exists - that the exterior remains the same, that it's set on the grounds the way it is now," said Barb Hower, who is leading the preservation push along with Wilkins. "Its presence there on Washington Street is what people feel really passionate about."

Avram says his plans to turn the site into a mixed-use development called Nichols Place will honor the Washington Street facade by taking it apart, brick by brick, and reinstalling it at the center or the north side of a new 80,000-square-foot building.

Nichols Place plans also call for saving the vestibule, bringing it up to code and creating a public gallery to honor businessman, educator and benefactor James Lawrence Nichols, whose gift of $10,000 led to the creation of the original library.

  The historic former Nichols Library in downtown Naperville is sparking a preservationist sentiment from some in town, but others say the city would benefit from revitalization offered by a proposal to develop shops, restaurants, offices and condos at the site. Bev Horne/ September 2016
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 is the subject of a local landmark status application and the focus of a redevelopment proposal. Courtesy of Naperville Public Library
Photos on a website supporting the proposed Nichols Place development in downtown Naperville show the exterior conditions of the 119-year-old former Nichols Library. Developer Avram Builders says parts of the building are crumbling and moldy. Courtesy of Avram Builders
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