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The History of the Sterling Morton Library

February 27, 2013
"Books and gardens. They make a happy combination, appealing to the love of knowledge and the love of beauty.  The garden and the library have always been civilizing and peaceful oases in a turbulent and threatening world.  Neither exists by chance or is maintained by neglect.  Let us then, like Candide, ‘cultivate our gardens’ but let us not forget to cultivate our libraries. In the end, gardens as we know them today would not exist if it were not for libraries."
- Ian MacPhail in The Morton Arboretum Quarterly, Autumn 1982
When Joy Morton began planning for an arboretum in 1921, Charles Sprague Sargent, director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard, advised Joy Morton on the selection of botanical and horticultural works, providing duplicates from the Arnold Arboretum Library and suggesting other sources.
In the spring of 1922, Morton authorized Sargent to begin purchasing books for The Morton Arboretum. The timing was fortuitous, since important private English libraries were being dissolved after World War I, making it possible to acquire many fine works.
These, together with appropriate books from the Morton family's own collections, formed the foundation of the library. The collection was housed in the library wing (now known as the Founder's Room), which was added to the Morton residence at Thornhill in 1922.
After Morton's death in 1934, his daughter, Jean Morton Cudahy, became chairman of the board of trustees. As a memorial to her father, she commissioned the building of the original Administration Building, completed in 1936, which included rooms for a small library and herbarium. The rare books, many of them oversized, remained at Thornhill. The responsibility for book selection was given to Lowell Kammerer, curator of collections, and during the next quarter of a century the collections grew at a steady pace.
In 1953, following Cudahy’s death, her brother, Sterling Morton, became chairman of the board of trustees. He recognized the need to classify and house all the books in a central library, but died in 1961 before his plans were realized. His widow, Preston Owsley Morton, together with her daughter Suzette, chose to build a library addition to the east side of the Administration Building as a memorial to Sterling Morton. Chicago architect Harry Weese was commissioned to design the new library wing and in October 1963, the Sterling Morton Library was opened.
The new library featured an oval reading room with a fireplace flanked by curved, free-standing cherry wood bookcases. Handmade terra-cotta clay tiles on the floor complement the wood of the bookcases and created a warm inviting space. Just outside the library a walled garden was created honoring May Theilgaard Watts, a notable Arboretum naturalist and educator. The May T. Watts Reading Garden is an intimate space where espaliered trees and a vine-covered arbor help to create the perfect spot to catch up on a good book on a warm summer's day.
Suzette Morton chaired the Board of Trustees from 1961 until 1977. To instill in visitors a sense of the relationship between art and nature, she promoted the study of botanical art at the Arboretum and began The Morton Arboretum Quarterly, which included essays, original art, and plant information. During these years, she purchased many rare books and artworks for the Library. Her contribution was so significant that in 2000 her successor as chairman, Charles C. Haffner III, funded a secure, climate-controlled addition to the library to house these works and the collections were named in her honor as the Suzette Morton Davidson Special Collections.