'You'll see history come to life': Renovation of long-closed Carnegie Library in Waukegan begins

The silhouettes of what once filled this long-empty children's library room remain, and with a little imagination, you can envision shelves of books and the mantel over the fireplace that provided heat for youngsters seeking knowledge and adventure.

Among them was the renowned late author Ray Bradbury, who grew up in Waukegan and memorialized the city and its attributes in his famous books. It is said this was where Bradbury spent his childhood and was inspired to become a writer.

Students were dismissed early and stores closed to take part in the dedication of the Waukegan Carnegie Library on Oct. 1, 1903. Built to fit the contour of a steep bluff with a view of Lake Michigan, the building was designated a local landmark in 2007 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

Now, a

bout 90 years after Bradbury roamed the shelves, a buzz of discovery and anticipation has returned.

Propelled by a $5 million anonymous gift and complemented with two $3 million grants from state and federal sources, a $13.5 million restoration and repurposing of the city's first free public library as the Waukegan History Museum at the Carnegie is in full swing.

The project is spearheaded by the Waukegan Historical Society in partnership with the Waukegan Park District. It follows nearly five years of planning, collaboration and community support to secure the building and funding, as well as property to the north for an addition and parking.

The building at the northeast corner of Washington Street and Sheridan Road has been vacant and mostly unused since it closed in 1965.

The project in a sense is a tribute to philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who with a $25,000 donation made the original building possible.

The Carnegie Library on Sheridan Road in Waukegan was dedicated on Oct. 1, 1903. Courtesy of Waukegan Historical Society

A Carnegie donation

The steel magnate was known for his philanthropy, and his gifts in the 1890s and early 1900s were the foundation during a significant period in public library history.

All told, Carnegie donated more than $40 million to build 1,679 public libraries nationwide, including 106 public and four university libraries in Illinois.

Dozens of the original buildings are still in use in one manner or another throughout the suburbs. The Carnegie in St. Charles, for example, opened in late 1908. After several major additions and renovations, it remains part of the library there today.

Waukegan's Carnegie was one of two in Lake County and the only one still standing. Its future is as an education and cultural center, though old-timers who visited when they were young will recognize the original bones when the work is complete.

Besides reviving an important part of a bygone past, the reuse of the prominent local and national landmark will be a fresh chapter in how the past, present and future stories of Waukegan, its people and natural resources are told.

"When we are open in 12 months, you'll see history come to life," Lori Nerheim, Waukegan Historical Society president, said during a ceremonial groundbreaking Oct. 18. "We're now paying it forward, hopefully for the next 120 years, for the next generations."

A rendering shows what the future Waukegan History Museum will look like on Sheridan Road in Waukegan. Courtesy of Waukegan Historical Society

The work planned

Considered a milestone in a long process, the groundbreaking marked the start of a year or more of construction.

"When we gather here a year from now, I think you all will truly be amazed and astounded at what a beautiful building this is and what it will be," Gunny Harboe, president of Chicago-based Harboe Architects, said at the time.

Inside, lead paint has been remediated, the original wood trim and baseboards are being removed and cataloged, a new layout engineered, plaster mock-ups being created and selective demolition being done.

"Buildings like this are a real labor of love," said Dan Nowak, site superintendent for project manager Berglund Construction.

Berglund's resume includes the restoration of the Great Hall at Union Station in Chicago and Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park.

In Waukegan, earthwork in preparation for an addition also is in progress on the site that slopes 40 feet. In the spring, the limestone exterior will be cleaned of 120 years of grime and tuckpointed.

"We'll try to get it to look as nice as when it was built. That's the goal," Nowak said.

  Work is underway on the $13.5 million historic restoration of the long vacant Carnegie Library on Sheridan Road in downtown Waukegan as a history museum. Paul Valade/

The new uses planned

The Neo-Classical-style building will be restored and enhanced to advance the mission of the Waukegan Historical Society and greatly improve public access.

"It's hard not to be excited," Harboe said. His firm is nationally known for its historic preservation work, including the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall and Rotunda at the Chicago Cultural Center, and other landmarks designed by Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright.

"It's both restoration and rehabilitation to make the building function in a new use and a modern use," he said of the Carnegie.

His firm did a feasibility study in 2019 and is overseeing the design.

"We've been meeting every week for two years to really put together a very thoughtful, collaborative plan," Nerheim said.

Special programming, new history and natural resource exhibits, interactive spaces, sorely needed archive and collections storage, and a research library are among the planned features.

"We've already developed the framework for the Waukegan history and natural resources exhibits," Nerheim said. Design is proceeding in tandem with construction.

  Waukegan Historical Society President Lori Nerheim, left, and Shelby McDonald, the Waukegan Park District's director of marketing and community relations, look over the work being done on the former Carnegie Library in downtown Waukegan. Paul Valade/

Homage to Bradbury

A key element will be the restoration of the children's library room to be devoted to Bradbury. The author lived in Waukegan until 1934, when he was 13 and the family moved to Los Angeles. Waukegan was remembered as Green Town in many of his works, including "Dandelion Wine," "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and "Farewell Summer."

Nerheim explained the connection during a recent tour of the work.

"This room will be dedicated to telling the story of Ray Bradbury and this building," she said. "This is where he fell in love with books."

In 1992, when the library was being threatened with demolition, Bradbury used his celebrity to help galvanize support for its preservation, according a report on the structure in 2019.

The building had been owned and maintained by the city of Waukegan and was transferred to the park district in 2020. The district also will have a presence in the building through programs, classes and events.

Nerheim said the project will be a catalyst for downtown renovation.

Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor cited other major projects underway in the area, including the College of Lake County's campuswide renovations and new Student Center across the street.

Proposals for the city-owned block bounded by Genesee Street, Washington Street, Sheridan Road and Water Street also are expected.

"Each new development and redevelopment downtown brings more attention and opportunity to our gem of a city," Taylor said.

Plans moving forward for St. Charles library expansion, renovation

Waukegan Park District officially acquires Carnegie Library

New app celebrates life of Ray Bradbury

Carnegie Library to become Waukegan History Museum

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.