Inside Look at Old Nichols Library

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With the future of the old Nichols Library still on shaky ground, NCTV17 got a closer look inside the building and its history.

“All the brown stuff on the walls that you’re looking at is mold growth,” describes Dwight Avram, now owner of the former library who gave us a tour of the building located at 110 S. Washington Street.

“The ceiling has asbestos. The floor tile below the carpet has asbestos,” he continues. “The limestone is crumbling.”

Avram says the building is falling apart. “If you look at it from the outside, you’ll see cracked walls. The header that says “Nichols Library” is cracked. The roof is settling in. [There’s] lots of structural issues with this building.”

The owner now wants to completely rebuild it into a four-story, multi-use facility, including retail and residential space he says could benefit the local economy.

“You’ll have sax tax dollars.  You’ll have real estate tax dollars, which will contribute to the community,” says Avram.

While it may not seem like a prized possession on the surface, for some Naperville residents, that’s exactly what it is because of its history.

“When I heard it was going to be torn down, for me, it’s not just a library, it’s the memories,” said Dolle Nichols, a relative of James Nichols, who at the end of the 19th century left in his will and testimony $10,000 to the city to build a public reading room and library.

After the original Nichols Library no longer served its purpose, a new one was built that we now know of at Jefferson Avenue.   The original sat largely unused for about ten years, until the city finally sold the property to Truth Lutheran Church in 1996.

“Looking back twenty years, I don’t think the city should’ve ever sold it but that’s what happened,” said Charlie Wilkins, a Naperville resident hoping to save the building.

The city council at the time approved the sale, despite the will of the library’s namesake stating that it must remain a “public free reading room library” or go back to the estate – something then-council members say they knew nothing about.

“Legal [staff] did not bring up any prior council action in the late 1890s or anything in the will or anything to do with the family, giving the building back to them or them first saying ‘Yay’ or ‘Nay’ on it,” said former councilman Doug Krause. He served on the council from 1989 to 2015. “I wish we would’ve talked to the family. I wish we would’ve landmarked the property to begin with. Those options should’ve been given to us.”

However, the council did add covenants on the new deed when the church bought the old Nichols Library, to forever protect both the Washington Street façade and the foyer.

Now that a developer wants to rebuild the entire building 21 years later but re-incorporate the original façade and foyer into the design, one group of residents is saying that’s not enough and pushing for it be landmarked as a historical building.

“It’s not that we’re against development,” said Wilkins, who wrote the application along with Barbara Hower. “You could tear down the 1962 wing and develop from there. We just ask that it be sympathetic and compatible to the 1898 building.”

Such status would require additional review and approval by the historic preservation commission for any construction to the entire exterior.

“We wouldn’t have bought the building if we had known that land marking was an option,” said Avram. “We bought it knowing there was a façade issue to deal with and we had a variety of options to deal with it but land marking was never in consideration.”

“We think it’s pretty apparent this building has historical significance,” said Wilkins. “The owner shouldn’t have been blindsided by the submittal of this application.”

But Avram disagrees, saying it ought be too late for landmark status.

“Nobody that owns private property that we’re aware of anyway has been forced to landmark,” he said. “The city would set a very bad president if they did that.”

But Wilkins argues “The preservation code allows for this in circumstances where the public interest outweighs the wishes of a developer.”

However if it does go through, Avram says, it could backfire.

“A landmarked building is almost impossible to finance because you can’t do anything with it,” he says. “It would continue to fall apart and decay.”

“He stands to make a lot of money with this piece of property in the heart of downtown Naperville and we’re not taking that away from him,” Wilkins says. “He could build something new next to the 1898 building and the historic building itself, it could be restored.

Both parties agree with the importance of reserving history, though not necessarily how.

“The history is really the library itself, the system and not a brick and mortar building that’s decaying under our feet,” says Avram, who’s says he is hearing the feedback and has even gone back to the drawing board, coming up with nearly a dozen alternatives, including moving the entire old Nichols Library building in its entirety and redeveloping the land itself. However, even that could cost $1 million and there’s no certain place for it.

“We just want some direction from the city,” said Avram.