Downtown View:A Look at the Library

By Karen Cord Taylor

Summer has ended. We’re back. The renovations to the 1972 Johnson building at the Central Library are finished. You must see the results. They are scrumptious.

It was the former library president, Amy Ryan, whose experience in other parts of the country helped her envision a happier and more serviceable space in the building named after its architect, Philip Johnson. She initiated a strategic planning effort, consulting with users all over Boston. The result was the Compass Plan, adopted in 2011, that set forth eight principles for a new type of urban library. Those principles guided the renovations. She then oversaw the project from the start to more than halfway finished. The current BPL president, David Leonard, was in on the project from the beginning.

William Rawn’s architecture firm, one of Boston’s best, designed the rebuild. Well-versed city representatives were also involved since Boston’s capital budget provided the $78 million for the construction, which took place in two phases.

I served on the library’s citizens’ advisory committee with other downtown neighbors. I saw plans before the construction started and enjoyed working with the impressive team. I thought I might be biased in judging the outcome. So I asked my friend Sally Hinkle, a librarian trained at Columbia University, to visit the library with me and comment on the renovations.

She loved it. She pointed out that it now looks like a library. Amazing.

As we walked in, we saw another amazing sight—activity. People sit at counters along the newly-revealed windows, playing or studying on their computers. The formerly cavernous, sterile entryway now contains books, all at hand or wheelchair height. Newspapers are near the door. Drop in on your way to work, have a read, and get out quickly.  Sally, ever the librarian, picked up a misplaced book and put it back on the shelf in the right place.

No longer must you walk halfway through the building to find the information desk. It is only a few steps from the front door, so you can quickly get directions.

The interiors are warm, colorful and curvy—as different as possible from its predecessor. The cold granite floor has been replaced with extra-durable Hungarian limestone. The ceiling’s repetitive arches of wooden slats embrace the space. Orangey-red comfortable chairs will need cleaning and maintenance, but taking care of them should be worth it. Hard-cover books depicting the Boston skyline adorn one wall.

We visited before the Newsfeed Café and WGBH’s studio opened to the right of the entrance, but we could see that their activity will be visible from all sides. A broadcast studio is a fitting activity to incorporate into a contemporary library, the name of which now signals learning more than just books.

During the design phase I worried that the large entry space would be undifferentiated, with one part oozing into another. But the curves solve that problem, moving visitors through and defining spaces.

The bright, warm, cheerfulness continued—mostly—throughout the other rooms and is clearly attracting a following. The building was full of people. The computer room has expanded, offering 105 computers, twice the number in the old place. Almost every space was occupied. People had taken over most of the orangey chairs upstairs. At tables upstairs, many toiled on their own computers. The atmosphere was quiet but busy, companionable but focused, up-to-date but comfortable.

Sally felt the money had been spent wisely on the most important needs, and she was thrilled at how many people were using the space. “Remember when people said we didn’t need libraries—that we didn’t need books?” she asked, as if she had known the answer for a long time.

A Bay Village resident, Rick Weaver, 23, said he came to the Central Library once or twice a week to get caught up on his accounting work because the surroundings were so nice.

The only jarring note was the one room left from the original design. Deferrari Hall is the square, grey, tall room in the center with the double staircases. It was landmarked by the Boston Landmarks Commission, as was the building itself, who apparently were dazzled by the celebrity of the architect, Philip Johnson. Celebrity, yes. Good architect? A couple of his buildings might be interesting, but this Boston Public Library addition isn’t one of them.

The hall is cold, and the stairs are overwhelming rather than majestic. We noticed people avoided the hall if they could, walking around the outside to get to the elevators rather than crossing through it. Someone had tried to warm up the place with a circle of plants, but it wasn’t working. No one was using the stairs, although some people must. Certainly few will want to get married in Deferrari Hall as they do in the garden next door in the McKim building, but the hall is the architect’s failed attempt to reflect that beautiful space.

The Landmarks Commission did allow the architects to do away with Johnson’s bizarre granite slabs that blocked light and vistas from the first floor windows, which were also replaced. Supposedly these were incorporated because city people were afraid of the street in the 1970s. But I was living here then, and no one I knew was afraid. Instead we occupied those streets.

            The building still is a thud on the landscape, but inside it is considerably better than it was. Thank goodness for the vision and leadership that brought this new space into being.

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