A new chapter is opening for the Pratt Library

Addition respects 1933 populist design while adding space and staying current


November 02, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Once you learn to read," said abolitionist Frederick Douglass, "you will be forever free."

That was the promise when Baltimore completed the central building of its Enoch Pratt Free Library system 70 years ago, and it remains the promise of a $15 million annex that opens tomorrow.

Instead of seeking a new design expression for the three-level addition, the architectural firm of Ayers Saint Gross in Baltimore remained true to the spirit and character of the 1933 library, one of the country's best when it opened during the Great Depression.

The result is a beautifully appointed addition that fits seamlessly with the original building. Up-to-date yet rooted in the past, it enables the library to do much more without ever losing focus on what it does best: treating patrons to the inspiration of the printed page.

The design of Baltimore's central library at 400 Cathedral St. was based on an idea considered revolutionary for its time -- to create a public library that was not only accessible to all but also architecturally inviting.

In the 1880s, dry goods merchant Enoch Pratt gave money to establish a municipal lending library that would make books available "for all, rich and poor, without distinction of race or color." In the 1920s, when the first library on Mulberry Street had to be replaced because it could no longer hold the growing collection, then-director Joseph Wheeler expanded on Pratt's directive by calling for a building that departs from "the traditional institutionalism of the past" and imparts "a dignity characterized by friendliness rather than aloofness."

The land was a prominent site on the west side of Cathedral Street, between Franklin and Mulberry streets. Wheeler's model was the department store, which typically had no steps at the entrance, an easy-to-understand layout, and the most heavily patronized spaces at street level.

As designed by Clyde and Nelson Friz, Edward L. Tilton and Alfred Morton Githens, the Cathedral Street building became one of the first "open plan" libraries in the country, sharing many qualities with retail emporiums of the era. Like a large store with different sales departments, Pratt's central library organized reading materials by subject, such as biography, fiction and science. In the middle is a great hall lined by these different departments. Wheeler even placed 12 department-store-style windows along Cathedral Street, so librarians could mount changing exhibits to entice prospective patrons.

The design was so well received that it was immediately copied in other cities. But just as department stores create new merchandising areas and revamp others over the years, the central library has long needed to reconfigure space and expand beyond its original boundaries. The annex is the first step of a two-phase, $58 million restoration and expansion project that also includes upgrading mechanical systems and restoring finishes in the main building. The restoration work is scheduled to begin in 2005, with Beyer Blinder Belle of New York as the lead architect.

Accessible collections

The addition was designed to provide space for the library's most environmentally sensitive works, including the Maryland, African American and H. L. Mencken collections, and it represented a chance for librarians to rethink the way they store and display those materials. The African American collection, in particular, has evolved to become one of the library's most significant, and a $1 million donation from benefactors Eddie and Sylvia Brown will enable it to grow even more. In addition, the library needed space in the annex to house the computer systems and technology support staff serving the State Library Resource Center and others.

The task of organizing and designing these spaces fell to a team led by architects Adam Gross and Richard Ayers, the principals in charge, and Sandra Parsons Vicchio, the project manager. Katherine Leary, Jean Vieth, Kent Satchell, Mark Larkin, Sandy McLelland Hennessey, Alexis Schwartz and Mark Peterson rounded out the design and construction administration teams.

The site was a mid-block parcel along Franklin Street, between the central library and the 1991 Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, also designed by Ayers Saint Gross. Familiar with the classical lines, traditional materials and open plan layout of the 1933 building, the architects designed the 43,000-square-foot annex to be a direct extension of it, containing additional departments to supplement existing ones.

Primary spaces on the first level are the African American Department, which is open to all during library hours, and the new H. L. Mencken Room, open by appointment. The second level contains computer equipment and related spaces that are off limits to the public. The top level houses the Maryland Department, with the relocated Maryland Reading Room directly above the African American Reading Room.

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