Local library offers Hyde Park a smaller alternative to the Reg

By Carl Pickerill

The Blackstone Memorial Public Library— a majestic granite relic with a classical Greek appearance on the northern side of Lake Park Boulevard, past the Co-Op and Borders—seems at odds with the architecture surrounding it today, especially with the Regenstein Library a few miles away.

“Whenever you’re exposed to something, and you come back 30 to 40 years later to find it changed, it really tears you up inside,” said Herbert Hardwick, 61, a longtime Hyde Park patron of the 101-year-old library. “People come back to the neighborhood and perceive so much change that they falsely presume that the library is also gone. But this place has a magical fascination for people, a real magical effect, just like how any library is supposed to be.”

Designed by turn-of-the-century Beaux Arts architect Solon S. Beman, the library is the oldest branch of Chicago’s public library system. Guarded by 700-pound bronze entryway doors, the Blackstone Library features a spacious rotunda adorned with four hand-painted murals—titled “Literature,” “Science,” “Art,” and “Labor”—depicting a host of winged figures in marble thrones with books, flowers, and masks. The four themes, inspired by the educational nature of libraries at the turn of the century, provided a framework for the library’s public mission.

“These four subject areas were the subjects for society,” Hardwick said. “They were an indication of the fact that the library was to be a repository for information for use by the general public.”

To say that Hardwick is a “regular patron” would be to understate his devotion to the Blackstone Library. Hardwick is on hand for most of the library’s open hours (9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday), except during lunch.

Hardwick’s devotion is not a unique phenomenon at this particular library. Head librarian Anne Keough lauds the commitment that Blackstone patrons have toward reading.

“This is very much a library used by the neighborhood,” Keough said. “These patrons stay up on the latest books. We keep a list of bestsellers and from dollars to donuts; if it’s a new bestseller on the list, it’s already been checked out.”

Keough, who transferred from the Canaryville branch of the Chicago Public Library system six months ago, takes an ardent approach to her work at Blackstone, both in the organization of programs and in the enthusiasm for simply being in such a grandiose architectural environment. Her bookcase and filing cabinets brim with literature on the library’s history and style. “I’ve gotten fond of the library’s old looks,” she said. “They don’t make libraries like this anymore.”

Other patrons feel that the library’s programs foster a healthy sense of community among visitors and their families. Kids just getting off from school frequent the separate children’s library for internet and book use and relaxation.

“I see the library as being intrinsic to the building of community ties between community members,” said Dina Weinstein, president of the Friends of Blackstone Branch Library. “I just see it used differently than the local bookstores perhaps because of their location, customer service, expanded collection, and ambience.” Weinstein appreciates the wireless connection at the Chicago Public Libraries, which is “drawing in a whole new crowd.”

“I’ve had some really cool interactions with people and kids at Blackstone on different occasions like at the Centennial Celebration, which we organized in September 2004,” she said. “But I’d like to see Blackstone be more of a place that I can go to with my children on a too hot or too cold day as a destination and enjoy it on many levels.”

The staying power of its tiled floors, solid oak tables, marble facades, and bronze lamps and lampshades—all original to the building—is a big attraction of Blackstone, as Hardwick demonstrates with his unwavering attendance.

“Psychologically and socially, reading for me is a pleasant experience—one that arises from having been conditioned accordingly as a child,” Hardwick said. “Conditioning helps in the retention of information. People coming in here may think ‘what a madman,’ because I can always be found with a book in my hand.”

Hardwick, who lived for three years in Paris, refers to Chicago as “one of the word’s greatest cities,” and is living proof that intellectualism is alive and well in this venerated South Side institution. But one shouldn’t take liberty with the term “intellectual” regarding one’s choice in literature, nor should one be hesitant in one’s persistence in learning and reading, Hardwick said.

“This country peaked at around 1930 in terms of education,” he said. “People since then have been reduced to functional illiterates. Today, because of the exigencies of running the enterprise, you need to pacify the people in some way. So you give then their Nikes, their Levis, their 500 TV channels, some credit to buy a car, and they end up as satisfied functional illiterates.”

Discoursing on topics ranging from Victor Hugo to polio to the history of Chicago mayors to architectural history, Hardwick runs his own kind of intellectual gamut—and he does it with the written word. Whether it be the Fortune magazine sitting in front of him this past Wednesday, the Financial Times, The Economist, or the 20 other international publications that he peruses daily, Hardwick’s amassing of information reflects impressively on the capacity of the Blackstone Library.