Ray Bradbury has long said that his education came from libraries. It’s fitting then, that the Carnegie Library in Waukegan Illinois might become home to a museum devoted to the famous author.
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Museum proposed to replace shuttered library: "Bradbury is our gift, Waukegan's gift."
It's been nearly 50 years since Carnegie Library on Sheridan Road ceased to function for its intended purpose, and nearly twice that span of time has passed since a young Ray Bradbury roamed through its halls, "smelling the books like imported spices, drunk on them even before I read them."
That 1966 memory from the late Waukegan-born author echoes through the most recent effort to redevelop the long-dormant stone building — in this case, an endeavor launched in the private sector that looks to succeed where publicly-funded bids have failed.
"Unlike previous attempts to save the building, this one is saying, 'Why save the building? Because this is where Ray Bradbury grew up, and this is where he first went into a library.' It's a real sense of purpose," said Michael Edgar, president of the Greater Waukegan Development Coalition, a business-incubating firm that is among the backers of a $10 million proposal to reopen the structure as The Bradbury Carnegie Center.
An advisory panel for the non-profit was formed this fall and hosted its first organizational meeting on Oct. 29 to start raising awareness about both the project and the shuttered library's connections to the author of "The Martian Chronicles," "The Illustrated Man" and "Fahrenheit 451."
"The only remaining monument to Ray Bradbury's imagination, inspiration, and life (is) the historic Carnegie Library building in Waukegan," according to a mission statement at www.bradburycarnegie.org that references the January 2015 demolition of the Los Angeles home where Bradbury lived for 50 years until his death in 2012.
Sandra Petroshius, board president for the Bradbury Carnegie organization, said this week that the plan is to restore the library and reopen it as a cultural and learning center accented with Bradbury memorabilia and written works.
Asked how the proposal differs from past efforts to restore the 103-year-old structure — including a 2011 recommendation under then-mayor Robert Sabonjian to establish a cultural center on the site — Petroshius echoed Edgar in saying that the Bradbury focus will be marketed to an international audience.
"It's different, because we know what we want to go in there," she said. "Bradbury is our gift, Waukegan's gift, to give back to the region and the nation and the world. We also have the Carnegie, which is his library, and we have academic proof of why it is the most important building remaining.
"In the past, we didn't know what should go in there, and suddenly it came to us this year like an epiphany," she added. "It's been drawing all sorts of people because they want to celebrate Bradbury."
Constructed with funds provided by its namesake philanthropist, the Carnegie was designed in Classical Revival Style and opened in 1902. Bradbury, born in 1920, once recalled that he frequented the building from age 9 through his teens, walking down Washington Street from his family's home near the Waukegan Ravine.
A quarter-century after the Waukegan Public Library moved to its current home on County Street, Bradbury returned to his hometown in 1992 to throw his support behind a grass-roots plan to preserve the building using a mix of public and private funds.
That approach succeeded in cleaning out the structure but eventually faded over a lack of financing. The vacant building, now owned by the city, won fresh headlines in 2014 when it was named to the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places.
John Harris, the Bradbury Carnegie board's vice president, said the primary goal for the center is to "explore not only (Bradbury's) career and his early years in Waukegan, but also to figuratively transport people to Mars" by exploring his creative visions.
"We're trying to create an experience," Harris said. "Given that the Carnegie was where Ray Bradbury, Waukegan's son, learned to read and fuel his creativity and imagination, we'd like to create a thoroughly engaging and contemporary experience (to) connect today's audience with his work and those themes that he wrote about that are so relevant today."
Concept plans call for construction of interactive exhibits and a small theater, along with restoration of a reading room that would pay homage to Bradbury's formative years inside the Carnegie's walls.
The Bradbury Carnegie board's treasurer, Minneapolis attorney Kenneth Engel, mentioned Springfield's Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, saying "that is exactly what we want visitors to expect" from a Bradbury Carnegie Center.
Exactly how much such a venture would cost has yet to be nailed down, though Petroshius and Edgar estimated that the Carnegie would need $2.5 million to $3 million in renovations to get the project off the ground, with the total $10 million estimate including exhibits and operations.
According to Petroshius, the group has already approached both the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indiana and the Waukegan Public Library — both of which received items from Bradbury's estate — about acquiring memorabilia for display, either on a permanent or traveling basis.
Under a timeline presented at the October kick-off meeting, this winter will see the group pursue seed funding before going public with concept designs in the spring. Construction documents would be ready by 2017, with construction starting in 2018 and a grand opening targeted for spring 2019.
Among the steps taken to date, said Petroshius, are incorporating a non-profit status, developing a business plan, seeking an estimate for stabilization of the building and approaching fundraising consultants.
"We're trying to create a platform where people can step on to it and say, 'We want to be part of this,'" Petroshius said. "Once we get our business plan going, we'll be in a position to appeal to people that we know would be interested.
"I've worked with a lot of community organizations in the past," she added, "and I've never seen doors open as fast as they have opened here, and that's very exciting."
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