“I think our history will confirm my optimism,” wrote ALA Executive Director Robert Wedgeworth in the October 1981 issue of American Libraries. He was appealing for contributions to the Fifty East Huron Fund, intended to address outstanding financial obligations brought by ALA’s decision to authorize the erection of a 56-story building next door to its 50 East Huron Street headquarters.
ALA hoped to add 25,000 square feet of office space by taking title to the ground and six floors in the new building, then lease three of those six floors to offset expenses for furnishing and finishing the new space and renovating 50 East Huron Street. Many doubted the wisdom of the move.
That ALA ended up in Chicago at all came as a result of a now historically forgotten internal ALA power struggle over locating Association headquarters in the 20th century’s first decade. Librarians from the East wanted Boston, New York, or Washington, D.C. Librarians from the Midwest wanted Chicago, Cleveland, or Madison, Wisconsin. In 1909 the Windy City won when the Chicago Public Library offered free space for headquarters offices, and eastern librarians could not match that deal. Headquarters remained in that location until 1924, when it moved into the nearby John Crerar Library. After two more relocations, in 1963 ALA erected its own building at 50 East Huron Street, where it gradually outgrew its physical space. The parking lot it owned next door on Wabash Street offered promise, however, and in the late 1970s the Association decided on the Huron Plaza venture.
Plans did not always move smoothly, however. As bills came due in 1981, ALA unexpectedly experienced budget shortfalls at the same time costs of construction increased, and even months before it intended to take up new quarters in Huron Plaza, those three vacant floors were still awaiting lessees. The Fifty East Huron Fund was but one response. “How long can we stand before we fall?” queried one nervous ALA Council member. “The level of worry is low,” Wedgeworth reassured him.
Then on October 27, 1981—a brilliant, warm day in Chicago—Wedgeworth and Illinois State Librarian Jim Edgar cut the bright orange ribbon that stretched between ALA’s now two buildings while a brass chamber ensemble played and ALA staffers released 500 balloons into the sky. Thereafter attendees toured the eight interconnected floors, four in each building. But bills were still due. In an ALA Executive Board meeting the next day, ALA President-Elect Carol Nemeyer worried about the $250,000 ALA still owed for construction. “If we get the $250,000, are we finished?” she asked. “If we don’t get the $250,000, we are finished,” chortled Building Committee Chair Connie Dunlap.
Since that time Huron Plaza has been delivering revenue to the Association that over the years funneled more than $18 million into ALA endowments, to say nothing of the appreciated value of the additional office space. Wedgeworth was right; history did confirm his optimism.
Note: This post is part of a six-part series on the American Library Association’s proudest moments, written for ALA’s 140th anniversary celebration.
Part 5: The Saga of Huron Plaza