The legacy of James Lawrence (J.L.) Nichols I (1851-1895) lives on in the form of the Naperville Public Libraries. Originally from Coburg, Germany, Nichols’s story embodies the highs and lows of the American immigrant. When he was just six years old, Nichols, accompanied by his mother and stepfather, emmigrated to the United States. Destitute, his mother and stepfather worked menial jobs to eke out an existence. The family initially made their home in upstate New York before moving to La Moille, Illinois, where his mother had acquaintances. When Nichols was eight years old his mother died in childbirth. His stepfather then abandoned him, leaving him orphaned in a foreign land. A local German family took him in but treated him cruelly. Starved and frequently abused by the family, he ran away, beginning a long, difficult period characterized by near constant hardship:

He was handed about from one hard and cruel master to another, beaten, neglected, no schooling, no love. Only kicks and cuffs, compelled to sleep in barns and corn cribs, often suffering intensely with cold and hunger, with only an occasional oasis of comfort and sympathy.

Despite these sufferings, Nichols drastically improved his lot through self-education. According to his autobiography, Nichols spent evenings and Sundays reading and studying. In 1880 he graduated with honors from North-Western College (now North Central College) in Naperville, Illinois. The following year he was appointed professor of the Commerce Department at North-Western. During his time at the college, Nichols compiled a handbook of valuable business and legal information. First published in 1886, The Business Guide, provided sensible advice and instruction to young men, “reflecting the manners and morals of the Victorian age.” Topics included penmanship, correspondence, banking, contracts, and wills. The Business Guide emphasized personal independence and self-determination. Nichols instructed his readers to take responsibility for their futures:

Young men, you are the architects of your own fortunes. Rely upon your own strength of body and soul. Take for your star self-reliance. Don’t take too much advice–keep at your helm and steer your own ship, and remember that the great art of commanding is to take a fair share of the work. Think well of yourself. Strike out. Assume your own position…. Rise above the envious and jealous. Fire above the mark you intend to hit. Energy, invincible determination, with a right motive, are the levers that move the world. Be in earnest. Be self-reliant. Be generous. Be civil.

As examples of Victorian-era virtue and masculinity, these ideals loosely resembled those found in other writings of the age:

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, . . .

- Rudyard Kipling, “If –” (written 1895)

The trajectory of Nichols’s life calls to mind another literary allusion: the success stories of Horatio Alger. Nichols credited his “rags to riches story” to tireless hard work and a steadfast commitment to learning. The value of education was a central theme of The Business Guide. Self-education allowed the author to overcome the troubles that plagued his youth. Prior to his scholastic achievements at North-Western College, Nichols struggled to obtain a proper education. It took many years of self-betterment before Nichols acquired the education he so desperately sought. According to his wife, Elizabeth Barnard Nichols (1865-1946), dogged hard work was the key to James Nichols’s success: “By intense application he managed to master the English language and acquired enough education to secure a certificate to teach a country district school when he was eighteen.”

The Business Guide brought significant wealth to its author. The self-published book went through multiple printings, selling more than four million copies by the time it finally went out of print. It was also an international bestseller; translated into German and Spanish. Nichols became involved in other business ventures, investing profits earned from book sales into the Naperville Lounge Factory, a new furniture-making company based in Naperville. This company later became Kroehler Manufacturing Company, one of the world’s largest producers of upholstered furniture. In 1886 Nichols built a Queen Anne mansion on Chicago Avenue – one of Naperville’s showplaces.

Although he attained considerable wealth, Nichols did not forget the hardships that characterized his early life. Shortly before his death in 1895 at the age of forty-four, Nichols bequeathed $10,000 to the City of Naperville to establish a public library. He did not want children to go without books as he had. The gift was contingent on the city’s agreement to maintain the library. Taxpayers would be responsible for upkeep of the building, inventory, and employee wages.

Nichols’s gift to the city was an example of Gilded Age philanthropy. Although miniscule compared to the fortunes given away by industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, the $10,000 allowed the city to purchase property and pay construction costs. Before the public library was built, people had to subscribe to private libraries in town.

The Nichols Library, named after the institution’s benefactor, broke down restrictions to information. As one of the first public libraries in Du Page County, the Nichols Library democratized access to books and other educational material. Nichols’s contribution was a true philanthropic act, meant to improve living conditions within the community. He wanted children to have greater access to books than he had had. In this respect, the Nichols Library played a part in American social history as an attempt to improve the lives of others. Dr. J.A. Bell, first president of the library board, expressed this altruistic spirit in remarks given at the library’s dedication service: “This marks the turning of a new leaf in the history of Naperville.… This is not for today, not for tomorrow, but for all the future years, when rich and poor alike may find good books to read and a comfortable place in which to read them.” Dr. Bell also assuaged concerns that the library would raise taxes:

If we pay the debt we owe the past we must make some sacrifices to the future…. We are living in the civilization of the nineteenth century because others were willing to subordinate the present and self-interest to the future, and suffer privation, taxation and worse evils if necessary, that we might live on a higher plane.

Completed in 1898, the building provided an impressive setting for the new institution. The library was built on Washington Street, Naperville’s north-south thoroughfare and central artery. The rear of the building borders the western edge of Naperville’s Central Park. Located in the downtown area, the library occupied a central location within town. Proximity to downtown businesses allowed for maximum visibility and easy access. The June 22, 1898 copy of the Naperville Clarion noted that the Site Selection Committee, appointed by the Library Board, recommended the site because of its central location and also because it would link Central Park to a major street (Washington). The site encompassed an entire block, from Washington Street east, to become part of Central Park. Above all however, it was the building’s Richardsonian Romanesque design that increased the prestige and legitimacy of the newborn library.

Mifflin Emlen (M.E.) Bell (1846-1904), an accomplished architect who frequently worked within the Richardsonian Romanesque style, designed the library. Bell occupied an important position within the development of late-nineteenth century American architecture. He apprenticed under French architect A.H. Piquenard, designer of the Illinois State Capitol. At the age of twenty-six, Bell served as superintendent of construction on the Illinois Capitol. He also worked with Piquenard on the Iowa State Capitol. Bell’s tutelage under Piquenard and work on the two state capitols provided valuable experience that benefitted his later work for the federal government.

Bell became Supervising Architect of the United States Department of the Treasury in 1883. At thirty-six years of age, he was the youngest man ever appointed to the position. He served under Presidents Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland before resigning in 1887. During his tenure as Supervising Architect, Bell oversaw the design of federal government buildings (several of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places). The building boom of the mid-1880s – the result of a flourishing national economy – meant that federal buildings “were multiplying at a rate of about three a month.” According to one building trades publication, “Bell produced designs in government buildings in nearly all the states of the union.” Fortunately for Bell, a team of draftsmen handled much of the Supervising Architect’s design responsibilities. These draftsmen were of vital importance. According to historian Antoinette J. Lee, author of Architects to the Nation: The Rise and Decline of the Supervising Architect’s Office, although Bell provided what he called “general supervision,” he expected draftsmen to “be competent to prepare drawings for a stone building of considerable size from foundation to turret.”

Bell continued to design public buildings following his resignation from the Supervising Architect’s Office in 1887. He relocated to Chicago where he took on commissions for courthouses, high schools, churches, and banks. He also continued his work for the federal government as Local Superintendent of Government Buildings in Chicago and in 1891, was appointed Superintendant of Construction for the Government Building at the upcoming 1893 World’s Fair. Bell’s involvement in preparations for the World’s Fair also included a brief stint in 1891 as foreman of the Fair’s Building Department under Chief of Construction Daniel Burnham.

Unfortunately, Bell’s time as Superintendant of the Government Building ended on a controversial note when he was accused of fixing bids submitted by contractors. The incident was investigated by the Treasury. The affair tarnished his reputation.

Two notable commissions in Du Page County helped redeem Bell’s career: the Naperville National Bank Building and Masonic Lodge (1891) and the Du Page County Courthouse (1896) in Wheaton. Both buildings embodied robust, fully realized versions of Richardsonian style – sheer mass and weight rendered in brick and stone.

Construction of the Nichols Library began in 1897. The cornerstone was laid in October of that year. The construction contract was awarded to Alvin Enck for $7,498.00. The superintendent was C.L. Schwartz. Contractor Enck’s duties included selecting the limestone and managing local help. Enck used limestone quarried in Naperville. Bell received $239.48 for his work. An opening ceremony for the library was held September 22, 1898. A crowd of three hundred gathered to celebrate. Attendees were asked to contribute materials to the library’s start-up collection of five hundred books. A sense of community pride developed that eveining. According to one participant, “Our citizens are justly proud of their noble library. It ought to afford not only diversion to our idle people, but instruction and stimulus to our working people and our thinking people."

The aesthetics of the Richardsonian design deserve credit for the boost in civic pride. The library’s rough-faced ashlar stonework, a hallmark of the style, imparts a sense of stability and permanence. The entrance is framed by an arch of limestone voussoirs, perhaps the style’s most recognizable feature and its Romanesque component. The eponymous Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture combined the medieval, Romanesque arch with thick masonry walls and rock-faced stonework to create a style that strove for the monumental. Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886) applied this technique to public buildings, such as Boston’s Trinity Church and to private residences, such as Chicago’s John J. Glessner House. The sheer mass of Richardsonian architecture, however, was arguably best suited for large-scale public buildings (Allegheny County Jail and Court House in Pittsburgh).

The Nichols Library’s Richardsonian architecture anticipated the future success and longevity of the Naperville Public Libraries. The public libraries have played an integral role in Naperville’s social life. During the first half of the twentieth century, the Nichols Library was a vital souce of information and entertainment for the Naperville public. The library was also known to lend a hand in times of crises. Librarian Mary “Matie” Barbara Egermann (1897-1967) directed many of the library’s community service programs. As chief librarian from 1909 to 1950, Egermann played an instrumental role in the development of the institution’s mission.

Egermann expanded the library’s mission. During World War I she led an effort to collect books, periodicals, and money for servicemen overseas. After the war, Egermann organized a drive that sent scrapbooks and baked goods to veterans’ hospitals. She also created a “world doll collection” made up of donated dolls from across the globe – a popular attraction for children. Egermann used this collection to not only entertain but also as a way to teach children about the different cultures that each doll represented.

Nichols Library was instrumental in creating another Naperville institution: Naper Settlement. In 1915 Egermann started a small museum in the library; a collection of local history-related items that included memorabillia donated by servicemen. This museum was a popular draw, and in 1939, its five showcases were relocated to the Martin-Mitchell Museum, a precursor of Naper Settlement.

The rapid growth of Naperville after the Second World War led to the expansion of the Naperville Public Libraries. The Nichols Library closed its doors on Washington Street in 1986. The library moved to a new, larger building located less than a mile away. The institution now operates three branches to accommodate the Naperville public. The library enjoys an excellent reputation and has received numerous awards in recent years.

The continued success of the Naperville Public Libraries is a testament to the legacy of James L. Nichols. The instution preserves and celebrates popular memory of the “Old Library Building.” Installed in the foyer of the present-day Nichols Library is a miniature of the 1898 library’s interior. Extremely detailed and accurate in scale, the miniature room is a fixture of the library’s downtown branch. Many who have grown up in Naperville are familiar with it. The model transports the viewer back in time to the orginal Nichols Library, illustrating the evolution of the library institution and the Naperville community over the last 119 years.

© Barbara Hower and Charlie Wilkins (June 2017)


Old Nichols’ Story Dates Back to 1895, Continues before Naperville City Council / Timeline compiled by Barbara Hower, Bryan Ogg & Charles Wilkins
Click here to read / view Old Nichols Timeline