For over one hundred years, the Kankakee Public Library has been meeting the information needs of the residents of the City of Kankakee. In March of 1896, the first Kankakee Public Library opened in the Arcade Building, located at the northwest corner of Schuyler Avenue and Merchant Street. By the fall of 1897, a drive was underway to build a new building to house the Library’s growing collection of 2,200 books. The building, constructed on the corner of Indiana Avenue and Station Street, opened in January of 1899 and remained the Library’s home for nearly 105 years.
Members at the first meeting of the Board of Trustees, November 12, 1895
J.H. Brayton: Mayor of the City of Kankakee
Andrew S. Cutler: President; Dentist, bookstore owner, Civil War veteran, licensed Baptist preacher, presented first public library petition
Henry A. Magruder: Member of Board of Directors City National Bank of Kankakee, later Mayor of the City of Kankakee
Alexis L. Granger: Lawyer in firm Granger & Granger, Officer of The Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane, attorney for First National Bank and Legris Brothers’ Bank
Albert Schneider: Businessman in fire insurance, Secretary of Kankakee Building and Loan, Director of Eastern Illinois Trust & Savings Bank
Emory Cobb: Capitalist, Kankakee land investor, Western Union Chicago Office Manager, Trustee of the University of Illinois, initiated building projects in Kankakee, constructor of electric street cars in Kankakee
Daniel H. Paddock: Former State’s Attorney
Herman W. Snow: Teacher, Lawyer, Civil War Lt. Colonel, member of the Illinois General Assembly, United States Congressman from the 9th district
Hamilton K. Wheeler: Lawyer, Illinois State Senator from the 16th district, United States Congressman from the 9th district, defeated Herman W. Snow for congress
A. Davidson: no information available
Members at the time of the dedication of the Indiana Avenue building, January 25, 1899
(By the time of the building dedication, Davidson, Snow, and Wheeler were no longer board members. J.H. Brayton had been replaced as mayor by Henry Magruder)
Helen Huling: Donator of real estate for library building. Library third floor auditorium originally named Huling Hall for her husband, George, the former assistant mayor
Alice R. Hamlin: Wife of Kankakee Postmaster, daughter of Momence Postmaster
Ida W. Spencer: Wife of prominent Kankakee physician, daughter of Kankakee pioneer and Judge C.C. Wilcox
In March of 1896, the first Kankakee Public Library opened in the Arcade Building, located at the northwest corner of Schuyler Avenue and Merchant Street.
The building, constructed on the corner of Indiana Avenue and Station Street, opened in January of 1899 and remained the Library’s home for nearly 105 years.
On December 6, 2003 at 5:00pm, the Indiana Avenue building closes for the last time as the Kankakee Public Library.
The Big Move
For more than ten years, the Kankakee Public Library struggled to find a path out of their cramped 13,000 square foot 105-year-old limestone home. Projects came and went, including ideas to expand the existing facility, and others to build a completely new library. All the projects proved logistically impossible or cost prohibitive.
In 2002, a corporation left the Executive Centre, a seven story office building in downtown Kankakee, making available a large downtown space. Late in that year, city leaders hatched the idea of moving the Kankakee Public Library into the first three floors of the office building, while leaving the top four floors available for private office rental. This idea came with a host of concerns. No one had heard of such a dual-use public/private facility before. Could a public library co-exist with an office building? Library staff, Heritage Development’s Joe and Scott Franco, and Architect Marc Moline worked closely to develop a plan that would create two separate facilities under one roof, complete with separate entrances, elevators, stairways, and even mailing addresses. The plan would maximize the space without interfering with the missions of either enterprise.
A deal was also worked out to allow Heritage Development Corporation to retain ownership of the entire building, thus continuing to pay property taxes, while the Library would lease the three floors it would occupy. After 20 years, the City of Kankakee would own the entire building to do with as they see fit, thus creating a “rent to own” arrangement.
In January 2003, the Kankakee City Council approved a $4.5 million bond for the innovative plan. Soon after, demolition began on the closed restaurant on the first floor and the office space on the second and third floors. Enormous steel beams were installed to reinforce the floors up to Library standards. Many factors could have gone wrong to permanently derail the risky project. Amazingly, none came to pass. On January 5, 2004, a scant ten months after renovation began and 105 years to the day after the opening of the previous library, our newest home opened.
The new facility offers three times the space, five times the number of public computers, more than double the seating, meeting rooms, quiet study areas, teen zone, and 200 parking spots within view of the main entrance. The amount of services provided since the move has exploded. Patrons immediately embraced the new facility. Program attendance, circulation statistics, and computer usage sky-rocketed.
The success of the Library has sparked more downtown renovation, including a new bank. We are proud that our Library is serving to create a renaissance in the City of Kankakee. In 2008 and 2009, the Library took over the fourth floor of the Executive Centre to create a 240-seat auditorium, a computer lab, and a media recording and editing space. The Library is now up to 44,000 square feet. It is rare that a library is able to do an expansion only five years after a move. However, with the close partnership between Heritage Development, the City of Kankakee, and the Kankakee Public Library still strong, our city’s beloved 120-year-old institution is more vital than ever.
A view of the Library in the summer of 2019.
The entrance to the Kankakee Public Library.
The Kankakee Public Library has not one but two mascots. They are the two iron Lions that have stood guard at our front doors since 1930. The Lions are actually much older. In the 1880s (right after the great Chicago Fire) they were on guard on Lake Street at a downtown Chicago department store called Gossage. Carson Pirie Scott and Company bought out the Gossage store, moving the merchandise and the Lions to their own State Street store. At the turn of the century, Carsons did some remodeling and decided that the Lions did not fit their new entrance and they were stored away.
The Gelino brothers, pioneer Kankakee merchandisers, were long-time favored customers of the Carson wholesale store. When the Gelinos sought to buy the Lions, they were given the figures for free, providing they would be well cared for and "properly fed." The Lions were placed at the entrance of the Gelino store on the corner of Schuyler Avenue and Merchant Street in 1905. They were painted to represent living animals. Regardless of their ferocious appearance, they attracted children in great numbers. It was frequently noticed, however, that "dogs eyed them distrustfully, and some did bark - at a discreet distance." They remained in front of the Gelino's store until it closed in 1930.
After the Gelino Brothers store closed, the Lions were sold to the Library for $25 on January 14, 1930, where they guarded the entrance to the Indiana Avenue building for a heroic 73 years. However, when the Library outgrew its original home and prepared to move to a new facility, controversy arose. Not over whether the Library needed a new home, most everyone agreed the Library was bursting at its seams. The issue at hand was the fate of the beloved Lions. Shall they stay at their post on Indiana Avenue, or take on new duties in front of the newly remodeled Merchant Street building?
The Library staff conducted a poll of library users. The tally was 3 to 1 that the Lions should move to the new Library to be housed on the first three floors of the Executive Centre on the corner of Schuyler and Merchant Street, only a few yards from the spot they had occupied when guarding the entrance to the Gelino Brothers store. After the Kankakee Historical Preservation Commission approved the appropriateness of the Lion's move in a narrow vote, no hurdles remained to slow their march to Merchant Street.
Before they could take on their new mission, "Readmore" and "Seemore" were in desperate need of repair. The harsh Midwestern weather had taken its toll on their metal skins. Rust holes had developed, and one was missing an entire foot. It was decided that the artisans at Gemini Steel in Momence, Illinois would take on the delicate task of putting the Library icons to rights.
And so it was, when the Lions were unveiled by Mayor Donald Green and Mr. Scott Franco of Heritage Development Corporation on February 14, 2004, the Lions looked no older than the day they were cast in the 1880's.
Proving that the people of Kankakee took to heart that promise of more than 100 years ago, Readmore and Seemore are properly cared for and well fed so that they may awe children of all ages for decades to come.
A close-up of one of our historic Library Lions.
Readmore and Seemore, the Kankakee Public Library Lions. They once stood in
downtown Chicago on Lake Street, and then State Street, in the 1880s.
The Library Lions at their first Library home on Indiana Avenue,
where they stood guard for 73 years.