Moving old Nichols emerges as way to preserve Naperville's first library

New idea emerges to preserve Naperville's first library

On the eve of a likely passionate meeting on whether Naperville's first library should be saved from the wrecking ball by giving it landmark status, a new plan has surfaced that could make everyone happy.

The idea under consideration by Mayor Steve Chirico and the would-be developer of the old Nichols Library property calls for the building to be moved to a city-owned lot adjacent to the existing, and newer, Nichols Library. It would face the city's vaunted Riverwalk and could free the developer to use the vacated land on Washington Street for his proposed mix of retail, restaurants, offices and condos.

Although the city council is set to consider the landmark application at 7 p.m. Tuesday, old Nichols property owner Dwight Avram of Avram Builders is asking a decision be postponed so new possibilities can be explored that would recognize his right to develop and the community's desire to retain its links to the past.

"Right now there are a couple of interesting possibilities being discussed regarding the future of the old Nichols Library building," Avram said in a written statement. "We hope the council will give us, the city and others in the community the opportunity to fully explore these possibilities before rushing to decide on the current landmark application."

Chirico said both of the possibilities involve "moving parts." But he hopes the latest idea he and Avram are investigating can come to pass.

Here is how it would work:

• Avram sells the old Nichols Library, an 1898 Richardsonian Romanesque building of yellow brick and stone, to a third party, whom officials are not yet naming.

• Avram pays to move the old library to the grassy patch west of the current Nichols Library.

"It would be a perfect spot for it along the Riverwalk," Chirico said. "A very majestic site."

• The new owner concurs with a request for landmark status made June 5 by preservationists Charlie Wilkins and Barb Hower.

• The city council follows the historic preservation commission's Aug. 22 recommendation and approves landmark status.

• The new owner makes structural improvements while retaining the facade and vestibule, as required in a covenant placed on the property in the 1990s, when the city sold it to its former owner, Truth Lutheran Church.

• The new owner renovates the interior into offices.

• Avram creates new plans for the Washington Street site for approval and construction.

The city council has until Jan. 8, 2018, to act on the landmark status recommendation. But if the plan to move the old building to the northeast corner of Jackson Avenue and Eagle Street falls through, there is one other option: Avram would resubmit a new proposal that "leaves the building where it is and fully respects and honors the most restrictive version of the covenants," Chirico said.

Avram's current proposal calls for tearing down the building but reassembling its western facade and creating a public gallery to honor the building's namesake and donor, James L. Nichols, as part of an 80,000-square-foot mixed-use center.

That plan has riled the likes of Wilkins, Hower and Gail Diedrichsen, members of a group called Save Old Nichols that is pushing for landmark designation. Landmark status would put the building under additional city oversight, meaning any proposed changes that would be visible from the street must be reviewed and granted a certificate of appropriateness.

"This is a building that will only grow in importance," Diedrichsen said. "I just would like to get it landmarked so that it's given an opportunity to be saved. Without landmark status, I don't think it has hope."

But Chirico and Christine Jeffries, president of the Naperville Development Partnership, say the city should not landmark properties without the owner's consent. Avram filed a letter Aug. 11 opposing that.

"Personal property rights are very important," Jeffries said. "It would put the community in chaos if you start stomping on those."

Chirico said he knows there are some "purists" who won't settle for anything less than the old Nichols Library being landmarked and preserved at the site where it was built as the city's first public house of books. But he thinks the new options might work.

"If we can get this done," he said, "I think it's just a huge win for our community."

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  Dwight Avram of Avram Builders wants the city council to postpone a decision on landmark status for the old Nichols Library, a property he owns, so he and city officials can work on plans to potentially move the building and preserve it at another location. 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 L. Nichols. The structure, now 119 years old, is the subject of a local landmark status application up for city council consideration Tuesday and the focus of a redevelopment proposal. Courtesy of Naperville Public Library
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