Historic Nichols Library should get landmark status, panel says

Naperville's historic preservation commission says the old Nichols Library is worthy of local landmark status.

The commission on Tuesday recommended the city council declare the 119-year-old building a landmark, despite objections from its owner, a Naperville builder who wants to develop the site into a mixed-use facility.

The commission's 5-1 recommendation reflected the views of 21 speakers who supported the move for preservation, wearing red buttons that said "Save Old Nichols." One resident spoke in opposition and two offered neutral or nuanced views.

But Tuesday's vote was not a final decision. The city council will have the official say on whether the city's first library should be given the protective status, which would require the owner to be granted a certificate of appropriateness for modifications that affect the exterior.

Speakers in favor of landmarking said the structure at 110 S. Washington St. has value because of its Richardsonian Romanesque architecture designed by architect M.E. Bell, its significance as a library, and the fact the money to build it was donated by James Lawrence Nichols, an early Naperville resident who became a professor, businessman and author.

"It tells a significant story that cannot be replaced in any other format," Bryan Ogg, a Naperville resident and former curator of research for the Naper Settlement museum, said about the brick and stone structure. "It's a unique part of the community fabric ... and should be preserved."

Much of the discussion centered on the burden the landmark status could create for owner Great Central Properties III LLC, which acquired the property in 2013 from previous owner Truth Lutheran Church by agreeing to build a new worship space on a different site and to pay off the church's mortgage.

Dwight Avram of Avram Builders is manager of Great Central Properties and a proponent of preserving the former library's history by incorporating its western facade into designs for a four-story development of shops, restaurants, offices and condos. He says his plan to replace the facade on the new development and add a public gallery highlighting Nichols' achievements honors a covenant placed on the property in 1996, after the city sold it the previous year to the church.

"The building is dying of its own age," Avram said. "The building itself is not the Nichols Library history. The Nichols Library history is the Nichols Library system that has been re-created ... just a block away from here."

But others say the covenant requires the Washington Street facade to remain without modifications.

"The covenant doesn't speak to taking the stones apart piece by piece and putting them back up," historic preservation commission member Carrie Doyle said. "I think the covenant speaks to keeping it in place as it is."

The building itself is in need of repair, both preservationists and the potential developer agree. Where they differ is on the cost of restorations.

A report conducted for preservationists by the Western Great Lakes Chapter of the Association for Preservation Technology identified $65,600 worth of high-priority fixes to roofing, windows, gutters and downspouts; $255,500 of middle-priority repairs; and $13,850 of lower-priority work.

A condition assessment conducted for the owners by Kluber Architects & Engineers of Batavia identified $2.2 million of work necessary to make the building safe and habitable, including removal of mold, asbestos and lead paint.

The historic preservation commission set aside the differing estimates and made its recommendation based on its perception of the building's cultural significance.

"Obviously we are disappointed that the historic preservation commission did not understand the scope of deterioration and the impressive costs inherent in attempting to preserve the old Nichols Library," Avram said Wednesday in a written statement.

Some worry that if the landmark designation gains city council approval, it will hamper the very preservation it aims to ensure by making the project no longer economically viable. Avram said the status - and the rules that come with it - would "thwart" possibilities that could protect community interest in the historical structure and his property rights as its owner.

"I want to save it, but I don't have the money to buy it; nobody else has the money to buy it," resident Jim Hill said. "I fear if you take this action and the city council agrees with you, the library will sit there in its present and worsening state for a long time."

Others said the city can't fear the cost of repairs, otherwise all historical buildings would be gone the moment they become costly.

"If we got rid of any building that needed to be repaired or renovated or restored," city council member Becky Anderson said, "then we would have no history."

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  Dwight Avram of Avram Builders and Great Central Properties III LLC says the old Nichols Library in Naperville is full of asbestos and mold and needs roughly $2.2 million in repairs to meet city codes for occupancy. His companies are pitching a redevelopment plan for the site in opposition to an application to designate the property a local landmark. Marie Wilson/
  Bob Graham of Naperville, wearing a "Save Old Nichols" button, speaks in favor of designating the 119-year-old former library a local landmark. Marie Wilson/
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