Baltimore County Budget Crunch Generates Fallout Library Lesson: Beauty of Form Can't Overcome Cost of Function

February 21, 1993|By EDWARD GUNTS

The mood inside the soon-to-close Loch Raven branch of the Baltimore County public library system last week was funereal.

As workers packed up books and cassettes for shipment to other branches, a steady stream of patrons filed in to return materials before the library's final closing on March 4. More than a few stopped and spoke with the women behind the circulation counter, expressing their condolences like mourners paying their last respects.

"You're looking at a corpse," circulation clerk Donna Trotter sadly told one visitor.

The closing represents a particularly ignominious final chapter for the two-story building at 1406 Taylor Avenue, once one of stars of the county's library system. If it were a book, it would be a cautionary tale about the rise to popularity and subsequent fall from grace of modern architecture, as conceived for the steep wooded site on Taylor Avenue.

And the moral of that tale is relevant to anyone building for the public in these budget-conscious times: Publicly-funded structures should be attractive, functional and easy to maintain. And they had better not be attractive at the expense of functionality or ease of maintenance. Otherwise, when the budget ax falls, they may be the first to go.

Of the nine libraries targeted for closure as part of County Executive Roger Hayden's budget cuts, Loch Raven is the only full-service facility; the others were storefront mini-libraries or smaller satellite branches. Beyond that, Loch Raven represented brave new world of books for the library system -- experimental and innovative when it opened, visually striking and well-used even today.

"It was unexpectedly popular," recalled Herbert Davis, a real estate broker who headed the county's board of library trustees when the branch was dedicated on May 12, 1968. "It was never intended to be as highly used as it turned out to be. That happened because it was appealing. People just wanted to go there."

Designed by Robert Randall Fryer of Fryer and Associates, and completed at a cost of $400,000, the library was constructed on surplus county school property. It was one of the first to share a parking lot with a shopping center -- a precursor of the days when libraries opened inside shopping malls.

But the building's strongest attribute was its boldly modernist design, juxtaposed with the natural setting. Mr. Fryer, who considered several other possible sites, said he fell in love with the wooded ravine, which was divided by a stream at the bottom. He said former county executive Spiro Agnew offered to "box in" the stream, but he wouldn't hear of it.

Instead, he lifted the building out of the ravine by placing it on concrete pillars, or "pilotis." His palette of materials included glass, steel, concrete, stucco and hand-embedded exposed aggregate on exterior walls. He made the building's form rectilinear to contrast with the landscape. Round columns inside were conceived as manmade substitutes for the trees that were cleared to make way for construction.

"I wanted to create an oasis in the woods, a place where people could enjoy the woods but that was in and of itself a different form," Mr. Fryer said. "I wanted to build in the woods without upsetting the woods."

One of the library's most memorable features is a long concrete footbridge that crosses the stream, linking the parking lot with the library like a drawbridge spanning a moat. Once they crossed that bridge, patrons knew they were leaving behind the commercial world of cars and traffic lights and shopping malls and entering a more peaceful realm. In a sense, the bridge transported them to a place apart from the rest of Baltimore County, the same way the books inside the library took them on imaginary trips to other lands.

The sense of wonder and discovery continued inside the library, whose main reading spaces occupied the second floor of the two-story building. The layout was straightforward and fairly traditional, with two large reading areas separated by a lobby. The scale was not so large that it was intimidating to children, and not so small that it seemed claustrophobic to adults.

Floor-to-ceiling windows let in plenty of natural light, making spaces seem larger than they were while enabling patrons to catch a glimpse of the changing scenery beyond. Patrons could usually find a chair that faced outdoors and get lost in the woods for hours at a time. It wasn't uncommon to see birds or squirrels or even a raccoon come right up to the window. In short, it was an inviting place -- not only to check out a book but to linger and read it.

And here I have a personal observation: Growing up in white-bread suburbs of Baltimore County in the 1960s, I lived closer to the Towson branch, but I preferred to go to Loch Raven. I always found it a pleasant alternative to the hustle and bustle of Towson, and I enjoyed the entry sequence that forced patrons to walk in the woods.

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