When Aesthetics Meet Access: Everything Old Is New Again as New England's Carnegie Libraries Face Their Centennials

By Smith, Corinne H. | American Libraries, April 2006 | Go to article overview

When Aesthetics Meet Access: Everything Old Is New Again as New England's Carnegie Libraries Face Their Centennials


Smith, Corinne H., American Libraries


When Rosemary Waltos became Auburn (Maine) Public Library director in 2001, she was excited about APL's proposed building project. She had just led the Millbury (Mass.) Public Library through an expansion that more than doubled its original space. Not many directors willingly take on two major constructions during their careers, but Waltos was up to the challenge. Auburn's capital campaign was off and running, the initial schematics were ready, and the board members and local residents were supportive. And, in one respect, it would be deja vu for Waltos: Both Auburn and Millbury are Carnegie libraries.

Made of stone or brick, Carnegies come complete with steps, pillars, high ceilings, and tall windows--and interior limitations that were apparent almost from the very beginning. As these original buildings have approached the century mark, scores of cities and towns are pursuing renovation projects. Several New England initiatives mirror the trend.

"Our building was extremely unsafe because it had only one entrance," Waltos explained. The style of the 1904 library reflects the influence of famed architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Although a three-arched entranceway and a tower grace the classic front exterior, the lack of an emergency exit is just one of its failings: A 1956 addition had such short doorways that one had to duck to enter it, and during a mid-1970s renovation, the original woodwork was painted white, the installed elevator reached only two of three floors, and the arches were enclosed with glass.

Before APL closed for construction in November 2004, the space "was ugly, drab, and dysfunctional," Waltos said. The $7 million project will expand the library from 13,000 to 30,000 square feet and create meeting rooms, a cafe, and a Friends bookstore. The archways will be reopened, two entrances will lead into the main floor, and the dysfunctional 1956 addition and the original stacks are being removed. The expansion "will complement, but not mimic, the original design," Waltos asserted.

Carnegie's private secretary James Bertram offered sample floor plans in the 1911 pamphlet sent to grantees, "Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings," but deliberately omitted suggestions for the facade. Carnegie had intended each community library's exterior design to be a local decision and to reflect the surrounding landscape.

Instead, many Carnegies resemble temples or academic edifices, inspired by the white faux palaces of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (see p. 49). The resulting movement ran in direct opposition to Louis Sullivan's famous architectural maxim, "Form follows function." So, library services ended up moving into the impressive buildings that were erected.

When builders did follow Bertram's instructions, they made the main floor of the typical library into one large rectangular room that featured a high ceiling and multi-paned windows. The circulation/information desk (labeled "librarian and delivery") was often placed smack-dab in the room's center, with one corner of the rectangle devoted to children's books. The basement usually housed a lecture room, staff room, and space for utilities.

Functionality trumps form

By mid-century, any Carnegie in a growing town was straining under the resulting architectural constrictions. To make the best of available space, Carnegie libraries would often add extra shelving and move the children's collection to the former basement lecture room. Often, an addition would extend the back or one side of the rectangle in order to create a stack area and a meeting room.

Then along came the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which necessitated the addition of elevators and ramps. The result was often a jumble of make-do fixes that were difficult to work in and were not especially pleasing to the eye.

Today, at least a dozen of the original 85 Carnegie libraries in New England are now in some stage of renovation to heal such hodgepodges. …

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