By Sam Feldman

The ivy-covered, Gothic main quadrangle may set the tone for the University of Chicago campus. But just across the Midway Plaisance stands a modernist complex that makes an architectural statement of its own—and now stars in the story of a plucky comeback from near-obscurity.

With its rhythmic patterns, vertical lines, and use of glass, the iconic D’Angelo Law Library was the vision of renowned Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. Completed in 1959, only a few years before his death, the modern structure wore down over time.

But the school recently completed a long renovation process that brought the library into the Information Age. The work has drawn widespread praise, including the 2008 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Rehabilitation, and critical acclaim across the nation.

“The whole idea of Saarinen, who was not only the architect but also the master planner for the University during the 1950s,” explains Douglas Baird, the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor in Law, “was that you could have distinguished works of modern architects that were simpatico with Gothic architecture but also distinctly modern.”

Baird was instrumental in the D’Angelo library’s renovation, which began under his deanship from 1994 to 1999. At the time there was talk of tearing down the aging structure to make way for a new one. “I would have gone apoplectic,” says Baird. “Only a couple of us saw the potential of the building.”

Preservationists won out, and the school hired local architectural firm OWP/P to adapt the building—Saarinen’s lone remaining work in Chicago—to modern student needs. Under the leadership of Saul Levmore, Dean of the Law School, the renovations were focused on emphasizing the student experience and have produced a modern facility embedded in a historic space.

Creating warmer spaces

One of the biggest tasks included reducing the number of onsite books by 40 percent, thus freeing up room in the previously cramped tower for academic offices, a suite for student service departments, and study space. The most-used books remain on the shelves in the hundreds of thousands, while the removed volumes will be available either online or at the new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, slated to open in 2010.

To take advantage of the building’s windowed façade, light-blocking cubicles were removed and doors to the faculty offices given translucent panels. Wood and carpeting have warmed the space, while study nooks and lounges feature Saarinen’s cozy Womb and Tulip chairs in constant use.

“The library is no longer austere and dark with gray linoleum floors, concrete ceilings, fluorescent lights, and black book stacks,” says Judith Wright, Associate Dean for Library and Information Services.

The John P. Wilson Reading Room and a media room, where students can relax or study in front of a television, provide social space for students. The renovated student study space includes refinished original tables, new study carrels and chairs, improved lighting, and upgraded network access, said Wright.

Getting rave reviews

Students have embraced the library’s marriage of styles. “Everything’s modern—but also comfortable,” says first-year Zach Price. “Usually when people go modern, they mess it up.” Price often uses D’Angelo for solo studying, although given its quiet atmosphere he usually heads to the more boisterous Regenstein Library for group work.

The editors of the Law School’s three journals appreciate their new space in the library’s basement, which held the office of Career Services and faculty workshops. “The old journal offices were scattered in corners of the library building, and quarters were pretty cramped,” says Brett Reynolds, Editor-in-Chief of the Legal Forum. “The new journal office has not only given us a lot more space, but it also has made for a more collaborative environment among the three journals.”

In addition to the Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award, which was presented to the University by Landmarks Illinois in October, the renovation has garnered praise from the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune. Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin called it “a small but significant victory in the battle to preserve the recent past.”

Baird is satisfied with the results of the decade-long renovation that spanned four deanships. “We figured out how to both reconfigure the space and restore the state to what the architect would have wanted if they hadn’t been pinching pennies in the ‘60s,” he says.

In particular, he’s happy that the algae-covered pond in front of the library has been converted to a zero-depth pool using technology not yet developed during Saarinen’s lifetime. “It’s a beautiful reflecting pool now,” says Baird, “exactly what he would have wanted.”