It’s been 80 long years since the Riverside Public Library opened its doors for the first time on April 5, 1931.
But it also took many years to get those doors open. From Riverside’s earliest days, the only libraries in the village were those of limited size in schools, churches and in private collections. High school students trying to write research papers had to go to the Chicago Public Library.
In 1922, a resident by the name of Miss Gould opened the Book Corner shop, on Burlington Street. Besides selling books, she also began a thriving circulating library. This first “librarian” was either Madeline Gould, Miss Esther Gould or Miss Helen Gould. History is unsure of the name, although a Helen Gould served on the Riverside Public Library board of trustees from 1932 to 1938.
The Riverside American Legion Post #488 decided around 1925 that it would be a good idea to have its own room in a library, in the lower level. Here, World War I records and memorabilia could be stored and exhibited.
The legionnaires found an ally for this project in the Riverside Women’s Club, founded in 1913. A “tea” was held to propose the idea to the women, putting great emphasis on the $10,000 they were going to donate to the library, and minimizing the plan that a section would be occupied by the Legion. The ladies were in favor of the plan, as submitted.
On April 21, 1927, voters passed the referendum to finance the library. Though a tax of up to 1.8 mills was approved by a count of 1,422 to 431, a tax of 0.9 mills was finally adopted.
A referendum to issue $75,000 in bonds passed by a vote of 120 to 70, on June 25, 1929, a scant four months before the onset of the Great Depression.
When choosing a site for the library, several parks were considered, including the triangle of land adjacent to the water tower. Finally, on Feb. 8, 1930, the site on the banks of the Des Plaines River, just west of the Riverside Township Hall, was approved by voters, 353 to 40.
Architects Conner and O’Connor of Chicago had already drawn up blueprints for the library at the water tower site, but only the entrance needed any modifications.
On Aug. 6, 1930, the General Contract for construction was awarded to Arvid H. Viren, who bid $51,630.
By this time, the legionnaires had accepted the fact that the library trustees had voted down a separate section for their use, but graciously voted $7,500 to the library fund.
Groundbreaking and laying of the library’s cornerstone took place on Saturday, Oct. 4, 1930, at 3 p.m. It was remembered as being “a bleak fall day [with] few villagers present.”
In charge of the historic event was Robert Somerville, president of the library board of trustees. Also on hand was Miss Grace W. Gilman, the hired librarian, at an annual cost of $2,400. Miss Gilman had formerly been on the staffs of both the Chicago Public Library and the Newberry Library.
A dedication date of Dec. 19, 1930, was planned, but construction problems delayed it until Easter Sunday, April 5, 1931. This time, several thousand people attended the open house and dedication.
One speaker was Edgar Cameron, the artist who’d painted the mural of Marquette and Joliet landing at the Chicago portage. Somerville had commissioned this work and donated it to the library.
Nestled among the old elms along the Des Plaines, the native limestone exterior, and hand-crafted tile roof truly worked as a natural extension of the land. Above the doorway, Bulwer-Lytton’s quote inspired much thought: “There is no past so long as books shall live.”
Grace Gilman later recalled that “a curious and delighted public” oohed and ahhed over the library’s richly decorated interior.
Diffused lighting illuminated the Great Room. Overhead, hand-hewn beams and peaked lofts suggested an old English manor. Walnut bookshelves lined the room, and red leather chairs lent themselves to the comfort of sustained reading. There was even a recessed nook and a fireplace.
Yet, for all its grandeur, this was more like an extremely large, home-like living room, right down to the existence of ordinary floor lamps.
This was the Riverside Public Library, in 1931, and, amazingly, much of it is little changed, 80 years later. The lower level and the children’s room has evolved, and the library has expanded, and modernized, but somehow it all fits.
Today, the Great Room nook and wood beams and the Cameron mural would be easily recognized by those first visitors of April 5, 1931. Here the past still continues to live alongside the present, inspiring generations of readers.