Harper Library: 1912-2009

On Sunday night, two friends and I spent close to six hours exploring the apparently limitless supply

By Andrew Alexander

On Sunday night, two friends and I spent close to six hours exploring the apparently limitless supply of mechanical rooms, crawl spaces, service stairs, and roof turrets on the southern half of the Main Quads.I’ve spent a lot of time in Ida Noyes over the last four years, thanks to long and late hours at Doc and the Maroon, and what I’ve always loved about Ida is how many hidden spaces it has–how many secret back corridors and tiny staircases there are. Not even just mechanical rooms, either; the building has an entire access network parallel to the main staircases and hallways.It turns out that Ida’s gothic siblings are just the same. We traversed from the subbasement of Harper up to the roof of East Tower, back down to the basement, up to the roof of West Tower, over to Wieboldt, Classics, Gates-Blake, and the basement of Cobb entirely through mechanical rooms, crawl spaces, back staircases, service elevators, drop ceilings, and asphalt roofs. On the roof of Stuart we found an air conditioner the size of a small swimming pool. In the attic of Gates-Blake there were disturbingly-placed cushions and pillows. I had a terrifying descent down a ladder on the pitched, clay-tile roof of Classics, every second convinced that the hook keeping the ladder in place would come loose and I would plummet to an unpoetic death. The revolving searchlight on the Medical Center heliport kept shining on us, and I thought it was the UCPD.We discovered Harper Storage, the library system’s overflow stacks, which takes up the basement and the subbasement of Harper, Wieboldt, and Classics. On one of the pillars next to the bookshelves there was graffiti from other adventurers, dating back to the early 1980s. I have a huge cut on my back as a result of traversing through the ceiling of Harper–it turns out that there’s a five-foot-high crawl space between the ceiling and the roof, apparently so that engineers can go in and replace the reading room lights when the bulbs burn out. We had to crawl across the catwalk on our hands and knees and duck under and over the obstacle course of HVAC ducts.I probably shouldn’t reveal all the details here, as a couple destinations required what I’ll call “creative door-opening skills.” (Which, needless to say, all three of us had, as a result of several years of Scavving.) But nearly all the doors to the U of C’s viscera were unlocked, and we had a fascinating adventure. I only wish I had brought my camera–I had been seriously considering it, but left it home at the last minute. (The journalist in me kept screaming, “PHOTO ESSAY! PHOTO ESSAY!” Once, for my high school paper, we did a two-page centerspread of “Hidden Places at Ithaca High,” but that doesn’t exactly compare to Hidden Places at the U of C.)The most surreal moment of the night, though, came when we entered a perfectly normal place–the main reading room in Harper Library. Or, I should say, in the former Harper Library. As of the day before graduation, Harper Library is no more. The U of C is planning to renovate it and reopen it in the fall as the “College Learning Center.” (As opposed to the “College Drinking Center” or “College Stupidity Center,” I guess.) They’ve hired a downtown architecture firm that has produced some terrible ideas for renovating the space–mainly, throwing out all the beautiful hardwood tables and chairs and replacing them with European modernist furniture:The current Harper reading room is the heir to centures of the European Gothic tradition–the proud primogenitor of Oxford and Cambridge–but the new “College Learning Center” will be the bastard child of a cathedral and an IKEA store. (This is one of these cases where abortion really should be neccessary.)The full project seems to have been delayed by the University’s partial construction freeze, but when completed, here’s what the reading room in Stuart will look like. (Stuart used to house the GSB, so I guess it’s like they’re bringing it home):Notice the giant… thing in the middle of the room. Once again, it looks like the university that constructed Max Palevsky and Ratner is on the verge of a winner.Anyway, the consequence of all this is that when we opened a door and found ourselves in the Harper reading room, it was a bizzare, postapocalpytic sight. All the books were gone from the shelves and bookshelves in the center of the room were gone altogether, leaving just a skeleton of darker-colored carpet where they had once been. Most of the tables were still there, in their original orientation, but around the room there were piles of chairs and junk and workman’s tools and mismatched signs. I took some pictures on my cell phone:We took the spiral staircase up to the mezzanine:It was pitch-black outside–this was 2 AM–and the entire building was devoid of people, which only added to the eeriness. We went into the former circulation area, which was stripped of carpet and computers–really, the only things left were the desks and the signs:The renovation will turn the circulation area into a combined “cafe and student art gallery.” Despite what the rest of the library may look like, I am very sad I won’t be around to see this. The space behind the circulation desk is incredible–as soon as you get a few steps behind the desk, the low ceiling opens up into this twenty-five-foot atrium. It’s huge and spacious and even with the lights off (hence no pictures) it was beautiful. Damn the librarians for keeping it to themselves this whole time! As long as it becomes one of those grungy, student-run coffee shops (viz. Cobb or Hallowed Grounds) and not the icky corporate Plum Tree zombies, it’ll be very cool.For me, this was an interesting coda to my last four years at the U of C, as I can now count on one hand the number of days I have left in Hyde Park. Graduation was surreal, and seeing Harper Library in a half-dead, abandoned state in the middle of the night was even stranger. It always was my favorite building.