The Harold Washington Library opened on October 7, 1991. After the refurbishment of the Chicago Cultural Center in 1977, where the central library had been housed, much of the library’s collection was placed into storage. A debate on a new central library ensued and continued throughout most of the 1980s, frustrated by a lack of funding. Upon his election in 1983, mayor Harold Washington supported the construction of a new central library. Finally, in 1987, a design competition was held that drew five prominent entries from Arthur Erickson, Hammond, Beeby and Babka, Helmut Jahn, Dirk Lohan, and SOM. The entries were narrowed down to two finalists: Helmut Jahn’s glassy, modern design and Hammond, Beeby and Babka’s postmodern design that took elements from nearby historic buildings. Notably, Jahn’s design was to have arched over Van Buren Street onto the area that is now occupied by Pritzker Park, incorporating a new elevated station on Chicago’s Loop. As these elements were deemed too expensive, along with the rest of Jahn’s design, the Hammond, Beeby and Babka design won the competition.
With the support of Harold Washington and Chicago’s wealthy Pritzker family, ground was broken at the chosen site at Congress Parkway and State Street, covering an entire block. Upon the building’s completion in 1991, the new Mayor Richard M. Daley named the building in honor of the now-deceased Washington, an advocate of reading and education among Chicagoans as well as an advocate of the library’s construction. Since completion, the library has appeared in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest public library building in the world.