Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Library and a Statue

John Crerar was a Presbyterian who loved to read. He was also a railroad man and made millions after the Civil War. Crerar died in 1889 and left $2.5 million for a “free public library” and for a “colossal statue of Abraham Lincoln.” He was a member of the Illinois Saint Andrew Society and left the charity $10,000 which was distributed to the poor over time.

Mr. Crerar was born in New York City of “Scotch parents” and never married. He is interred in Greenwood Cemetery with his parents. Greenwood Cemetery is located in Brooklyn, New York and I visited his grave and that of Walter Scott in 2005. For many years Crerar was a member of the Scotch Presbyterian Church in New York City and left the church $25,000 in his will. In Chicago, he was a member of the Second Presbyterian Church.

A very religious man, he wrote the following in his will “I desire the books and periodicals selected with a view to create and sustain a healthy moral and Christian sentiment in the community, and that all the nastiness and immorality be excluded. I do not mean by this that there shall not be anything but hymn books and sermons, but I mean that dirty French novels and all skeptical trash and works of questionable moral tone shall never be found in this library.”

The first president of the Crerar library was Norman Williams. It is reported that he was one of Chicago’s best known capitalists. There are other people with familiar Scottish names also serving on the board including: Robert T. Lincoln, Edson Keith, Simon J. McPherson, John M. Clark, John J. Mitchell, Robert Forsyth, and George A. Armour.

The first location was on the sixth floor of the Marshall Field building at 87 Wabash Avenue. The library soon outgrew this space, so the Committee began looking for a new location. The place chosen was one familiar to most people in Chicago: Grant Park. The land was located between the Illinois Central Railroad tracks and Michigan Avenue and between Monroe and Madison. The state legislature approved the location and it was placed on the ballot in 1904. Those in favor numbered 50,960 and those opposed 9,329. As a result of a lawsuit, the Illinois Supreme Court said the building could not be built on this land.

The next location was at Michigan Avenue and Randolph, across from the present Cultural Center. The 11 story building was designed by Holabird and Roche and opened in 1920. In 1962, the library needed more space and the building was sold to the George F. Harding Museum who later sold the building to a New York development firm. The library building was destroyed in 1981 so that a 41 story office building could be constructed. This is a building most Chicagoans will recognize, especially at Christmas, because of the unusual “sharply shaped summit.”

In 1962 the library moved into a new building on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Its predecessor was the Armour Institute of Technology founded in 1890 with the gift of $1 million dollars from Philip Danforth Armour. Mr. Armour was also a member of the Illinois Saint Andrew Society and was said to have been its most liberal donor.

The new building was designed by architect Walter Netsch. It was a 92,000 sq. ft. facility “with a pleasing modern aesthetic design inspired by Miles van der Rohe.” Mr. Netsch was married to life member and distinguished citizen, Dawn Clark Netsch. (Mrs. Netsch recently died; please see my Blog dated March 6, 2012.)

The Crerar library is now located on the campus of the University of Chicago not far from the midway of the World’s Fair in 1893. The library moved to its present location in 1984.

I hope you’ve noticed all the Scottish connections in this story. Whenever I look at Chicago’s past this connection is always present. Scottish Americans have made a tremendous contribution to Chicago. It’s a little more difficult to find those connections today, but they are still there. Those “quiet immigrants” and their descendants are still a major factor in the life of this City. There is more to the Crerar story and I hope you can follow all the connections.

Norman Williams, Jr. married Joan Chalmers in 1902. He was the son of Norman Williams (the first president of the Crerar Library) and Joan Chalmers who was the daughter of William J. Chalmers and Joan Pinkerton. Both William Chalmers and Joan Pinkerton were first-generation descendants of parents from Scotland.

Their children, Joan Williams and her brother, Major Thomas Stewart Chalmers died within eight days of each other and thus the memorial window in Chrysostrom church. The son of Joan Chalmers was also named Norman. He was the grandson of Norman Williams, the first president of the Crerar Library Board, and he would unveil the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Grant Park in 1926; thus completing the provisions of John Crerar’s will.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society

May 4, 2013 - Please join us for a conversation with Jean Davidson of the famous Harley Davidson Motor Company. Here is just part of the story:

Arthur and Mary Davidson left their tiny house in Brechin, Scotland, in 1852 and headed for America. They had five children: Ann, Margaret, Alexander, William C. and John. It was William C. Davidson who fathered the three Davidson brothers, Arthur, Walter and William A. who co-founded the company with William S. Harley.

Joan Davidson has a wonderful story to tell and you will enjoy her presentation and the great pictures she will shown.

We also celebrate birthdays in May. So, if you have a birthday around this time come and join us for cake, scones, coffee and tea. Reservations can be made at 708-447-5092.

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