Kankakee Public Library

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The Kankakee Public Library Logo.
Address 201 East Merchant St.
established 1876
type Public (Municipal)
population 24,491
circulation 139,713
staff 50
computers 33
building_size 44,000
Website http://www.lions-online.org
Head Librarians / Directors
1895-1897 Anne Hurd
1897-1899 L.W. Ellis
1899-1915 Bessie S. Clapp-Cash
1916-1919 Rose Mather
1919-1921 Marjorie Fritz
1921-1923 Mildred Hesse
1923–1963 Dorothy K. Brown
1963–1967 Henry W. Engel
1967–1977 Ann Chandler
1977–1979 James Jaeger
1979–1983 Neal J. Ney
1983–1987 Linda Gapsewicz
1987 Vera Wigell
1988 William N. Hensley
1989–1995 Michael Furl
1995–2009 Cynthia Fuerst
2009–Present Stephen J. Bertrand

The Original Library Building

For over 100 years the Kankakee Public Library has been meeting the information needs of the residents of the City of Kankakee. In March 1896, the first Kankakee Public Library opened in the Arcade Building, located at the northwest corner of Schuyler 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. In 2007, the building at 301 South Indiana Ave. was converted to the Kankakee Public Administration Building. The administration building opened in July 2008. It houses the offices of the mayor, the comptroller, city clerk, legal department, alderman, and various other city officials.

Kankakee Public Library Establishment Chronology

  • Dec. 1856 Fourteen interested citizens met to organize a public library. No further meetings of this organization were reported.
  • Nov. 1873 At the home of Mrs. George Huling, the first meeting of the Ladies Association was recorded. The group was incorporated in 1876.
  • Oct. 1895 Interested citizens began to discuss the possibility of establishing a city library. The Kankakee Men’s University Club took the initiative in gathering public support.
  • Nov. 1895 The city voted favorably after a petition with 200 signatures was presented to the city council asking that the council levy the tax necessary to establish a public library.
  • Mar. 1896 The first Kankakee Public Library opened in the Arcade Building. Books, prints, etchings, and $1,000 worth of furnishings had been donated by friends of the library. The library’s collection included 600 volumes. Dr. Andrew Cutler donated 50 volumes, including his complete Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • Apr. 1896 After two weeks, over 325 people had applied for library cards. In order to obtain a card, patrons had to have a “responsible person” sign for them, and agree to follow the rules and regulations of the library.

The board of directors continued to order new books for the library to meet the ever increasing demands of its patrons. By the end of the month, the number of volumes in the collection stood at 1400. Library cards had been issued to 600 patrons.

  • Oct. 1896 In an address marking the library’s first anniversary, Dr. Cutler noted the popularity of the library, but expressed concern that 63% of the books circulating were fiction.
  • Mar. 1897 The collection had grown to 1824 volumes. Average daily attendance had reached 250.
  • Jun. 1897 Leading citizens and friends of the library embarked on a drive to build a library building. Mrs. F. Swannel donated a lot on South Dearborn, but it was deemed too small. Dedicated citizens set about the task of gathering signatures and public support.

The library collection had grown to 2,200 books, the large majority of which had been donated. Over 1,200 people had library cards.

  • Sept. 1897 The City Council approved a tax levy of $4971 for the purpose of erecting a library building. Mrs. George Huling donated the present site.

The Ladies Library Association donated 3,000 volumes and $5,000. The $5,000 was a bequest from Mr. George Huling given with the conditions that (1)three ladies should always serve on the board of directors and (2) a hall be named for Mr. Huling.

  • Aug. 1898 The Indiana Avenue building cornerstone was laid with great fanfare. A parade, including local dignitaries and interested citizens, marched from the Arcade Building down Station Street to the library.
  • Jan. 1899 The Indiana Avenue library building was dedicated. The address was given by Dr. Cutler followed by a musical program in Huling Hall.

The Indiana Avenue library was constructed at a cost of $12,000 but the estimated worth was $20,000.

  • 1899-1900 Mrs. Ellis, the new librarian received $40 per month. The janitor received $30 per month.

The First Board of Trustees

(at the time of the Indiana Ave. building dedication)

Andrew S. Cutler - President: Dentist, bookstore owner, Civil War veteran, licensed Baptist preacher, presented first public library petition.

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.

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.

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.

Ida W. Spencer: Wife of prominent Kankakee physician, daughter of Kankakee pioneer and Judge C.C. Wilcox.

Henry A. Magruder: Member of Board of Directors City National Bank of Kankakee.

Alice R. Hamlin: Wife of Kankakee Postmaster, daughter of Momence Postmaster.

Daniel H. Paddock: Former State’s Attorney.

The Current Board of Trustees

Board President: Anne Miller

Vice-President: Dr. Steven Epstein

Secretary: Theresa Hult


Sheila Donahue-Kramer

Ron Jackson

Jane Potter

Matthew Olszewski

Beth Patrick-Trippel

The Big Move

The Library's current home in the Executive Centre

For more than ten years, the Kankakee Public Library struggled to find a path out of their cramped 13,000 square foot 100-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 large corporation left the Executive Centre, a seven story office building in downtown Kankakee, leaving it nearly half empty. The city was faced with a potential white elephant in the center of the community. Late in that year, city leaders hatched the idea of moving the Kankakee Public Library into the first three floors of the half vacant office building, while leaving the top four floors available for private office rental. Such a scheme came with a host of problems. First off, no one had heard of such a dual use public/ private facility before. Could a public library co-exist with an office building? Architect Jack Lakey developed 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. A million factors could have gone wrong to permanently derail the risky project. Miraculously, 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, a coffee bar, teen zone, and 200 parking spots within view of the main entrance. The amount of services provided since the move has exploded. Patrons noted that they couldn’t believe such a sophisticated Library could be located in their home town. The success of the Library has sparked more downtown renovation, including a new bank and a university satellite campus. We are proud that our Library is serving to create a renaissance in the City of Kankakee.

The Fourth Floor

Incredibly, after only 5 years in its new location, the Kankakee Public Library expanded again. After unanimous approval by City Council, the Library is taking over the fourth floor of the Executive Centre to establish the Luminarium. The concept of the Luminarium is to make a creative space for the people of Kankakee where they can express themselves using 21st century technology. It includes a 250 person auditorium, a digital video and audio lab called Studio 201, a computer teaching lab, a podcast recording room and more.

The Lions

The Lions as they appeared in front of the Indiana Ave. Buidling.

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. Originally, back 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 Co., 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 free, providing they were to be well cared for and "properly fed." The lions were placed at the entrance of the Gelino store, on the corner of Schuyler and Merchant, 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 donated to the Library where they guarded the entrance to the Indiana Ave. building for a heroic 73 years. However, when the Library outgrew it's 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 it's seams. The issue at hand was the fate of the beloved Lions. Shall they stay at their post on Indiana Ave., 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 it's 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 of Momence 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 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.

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