With the recent hiring of an architect and a $750, 000 state grant, Ray Bradbury’s old stomping grounds, the Carnegie Library, is getting closer to becoming the new home of the Waukegan Historical Society and Waukegan History Museum.
Officials predict a grand opening in roughly two years, and expect to name a general contractor for the project at the Waukegan Park District’s Tuesday meeting.
Roughly 12,000 square feet of space will house permanent and rotating exhibits created from artifacts stored at the current Waukegan History Museum, the historic Haines House in Bowen Park.
The restoration project at 1 North Sheridan Road is estimated to cost $8 million. The Waukegan Historical Society has secured a $5 million private donation toward the restoration. The Waukegan Park District, which owns the building after purchasing it for $1 from the City of Waukegan, has roughly $2 million earmarked for the project, and fundraising continues.
Officials say they will be able to better preserve historical artifacts, including documents and books, with controlled temperatures and humidity. The park district also will offer classes and other activities in the new space at the Carnegie Library. A small addition will be needed for handicap accessibility.
The building was almost torn down in the 1990s before a group of citizens saved it, according to Ty Rohrer, the park district’s manager of cultural arts.
“It’s a beautiful building, and it’s been empty for 50 years,” said park district Executive Director Jay Lerner. The Carnegie Library, built in 1903 in the classic revival style, was added to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historical Places in 2014.
“Many residents remember going to that building as a child,” Lerner said. “It has an amazing view to the east of the lake. It’s right at the heart of downtown Waukegan.”
The new museum, he said, will give the park district a chance to tell more stories of Waukegan’s history, and also bring in people from outside of the city who want to see the inside of the historic building.
Rohrer said the park district is working on a video to be released within a few months showing the interior before it’s fully restored.
The Waukegan Public Library, known as the Carnegie Library because it was funded by the Andrew Carnegie Foundation, was used continuously until 1965, at which time it was relocated to a new building on County Street.
Since then, the Carnegie Library was used for a few community activities, but it basically fell into disrepair.
Meanwhile, the Waukegan History Museum was outgrowing its space at the Haines House.
“There are so many wonderful history stories to tell, and we just don’t have the space for that in our current museum,” Rohrer said. “We were looking to expand that, and to share more of the history and to provide a better environment for our research library.”
Funds were being raised to expand the Haines House, but when the $5 million private donation was announced, a feasibility study was done by Harboe Architects to see if the Carnegie Library could be used for a new history museum, according to Rohrer.
Harboe Architects, a historic preservation firm which prepared plans for restoration of the Robie House in Chicago, is now working on the design for the restored Carnegie Library in Waukegan.
Officials applied for the $750,000 state grant when they knew the Carnegie restoration would become reality, Lerner said. The park district is also awaiting word on another grant application for $500,000, he said.
“We are restoring the building, but it’s also an adaptive reuse,” Rohrer said. “When you walk in, you’ll get a sense of the original building, but we are not using it as a library. We do anticipate a few spots or rooms to be recreated as they were originally.”
Rohrer and Lerner said the new museum will allow more stories to be told about Waukegan’s past, present and future through permanent and temporary exhibits.
“The most important story for us to tell is really the story of where everybody has come from, the immigration and migration, and how it ties in with industry even to this present day,” Rohrer said. “Waukegan has always been diverse. I think it is our job and obligation to tell that history.”
Lerner agreed. “It’s something we want to tell more about – the history of all the people in Waukegan from hundreds of years ago, to the last 50 years, to now. It’s important.”
Rohrer added that new storage areas with controlled temperature and humidity will be created. “That will help future generations insuring our documents and books will be protected,” he said.
In addition, the restored building also will afford greater opportunity for historical research.
“Right now, we are limited with the amount of space we have (at the Haines House) for people to come in and spread out,” Rohrer said. “At the Carnegie, there will be so much more room, especially when we work with Waukegan High School students.”
Lerner said he expects design to be ready for approval roughly within six months, followed by interior and exterior work and the moving of artifacts and exhibits from the Haines House to the new museum.
After the Carnegie Library is converted to the new history museum, the Haines House, “will continue to tell the story of life in Waukegan in the 1870s,” Rohrer said. “We anticipate that we will also showcase much more of the wonderful history of Bowen Park grounds as well.”
Rohrer said it’s important to note the support by residents and officials for the project.
”The building itself has had folks loving it for a long time, and now we’re seeing such great support through the private foundation that’s giving $5 million, the state helping out and other monies coming,” he said.
He added the project would not be possible without partnership between the Waukegan Historical Society and the Waukegan Park District.
”People sometimes say nothing ever good is happening in Waukegan,” Rohrer said. “But there are a lot of good things happening here, and this is one of them.”
Luci Creative is providing exhibit design services for the Waukegan Park District as a part of the renovation of the Waukegan Carnegie Library.