Play creator weighs in on future of Naperville's old Nichols Library

Before there was a real proposal to replace the old Nichols Library in downtown Naperville with shops, restaurants, offices and condos, there was an imaginary pitch to turn it into a mosque.

The building was the subject of a play called "Mosque Alert" that fictionalized reactions to its potential future as an Islamic center.

Now, the site is a source of local contention as some advocate for economic growth while others push for historic preservation.

"It's life imitating art imitating life," says Jamil Khoury of Silk Road Rising theater company in Chicago, who wrote the play "Mosque Alert" and recently heard about the real-life development proposal that targets the 119-year-old former library. "Of course, I was intrigued."

Khoury's play examined what community reactions could have been if an Islamic congregation attempted to turn Naperville's original house of books into a prayer hall, gathering space and religious studies center called Al Andalus Library and Community Center.

He says the play became real for some audience members, who favored the idea and swore they'd seen the mosque under construction. It brought out concerns from others, who called the notion of turning the well-known building into a mosque "a provocation" and said they'd oppose it if it were real. Still others took a fiscal stance and questioned giving the building another nonprofit religious use, which would keep it off the tax rolls.

"Mosque Alert" came to life in a staged reading in October 2015 in Naperville, an eight-week run the following year at Silk Road Rising in Chicago, and at colleges in Naperville, Lisle, Galesburg and Valparaiso, Indiana.

The old Nichols Library itself, meanwhile, continued being used as Truth Lutheran Church by a Chinese congregation.

Then the church made plans to move to a new location outside of the downtown, and developer Dwight Avram of Avram Builders stepped in.

With his proposal for Nichols Place, a four-story, 80,000-square-foot multiuse center, Avram has pitched two designs of a plan that would preserve the Washington Street facade of the historic library but bring new commercial vitality.

He's now seeing the variety of reactions Khoury's play only imagined.

Some in Naperville support Nichols Place, calling the preservation of the old facade among a new building a "creative" approach to following a requirement that the west-facing exterior be maintained. Others are against the plan, calling it a "peel and stick" approach that isn't appropriate for a building so many remember as the city's library until 1986.

Khoury, a Mount Prospect native who now lives in Chicago, has sided with the opposition camp. He says plans for Nichols Place are too large and called the commitment to save the Washington Street exterior a "facadectomy."

"It would be drowned out by a much larger structure," Khoury said about the brick-and-limestone building he's come to admire. "I was hoping for something more to scale that would honor the building's history."

That's exactly what Avram's camp says the proposal does, especially because it would incorporate a public gallery displaying the legacy of James Lawrence Nichols, a teacher, writer and businessman who donated $10,000 to allow the city to build its first library.

From his work fictionalizing what Naperville could think about changing the historic library, Khoury said he knows reactions will vary. Now that the potential for change is real - outside the world of his play - he said he's glad the city is engaging in dialogue.

"I think there needs to be a conversation," he said, "because Naperville stands to lose something special."

'Mosque Alert' explores reactions to Islamic worship houses

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
Actors in the play "Mosque Alert" portray a scene in which proponents of a fictional plan to turn the city's first library into an Islamic center confront a resident who vehemently opposes the idea. "Mosque Alert" imagined a religious future for the old Nichols Library, but the 1898 building now is the subject of a redevelopment proposal that could bring shops, restaurants, offices and condos. Courtesy of Airan Wright
Jamil Khoury
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