Roland Park Library expansion

Charles Alexander, founder of Alexander Design Studio in Ellicott City, leads an effort to modernize Baltimore's 1924 Roland Park library branch without destroying its original character

August 12, 2007

THE ARCHITECTS -- Charles Alexander, principal in charge, and Eric Lewis, project architect, of Alexander Design Studio; and Laurie McLain of McLain Associates. Southway Builders is the general contractor. An award-winning architect, Alexander, 42, lives in historic Ellicott City with his wife, Nora Finn, and 2-year-old son, Finn.

THE PROJECT --To expand the Roland Park library, one of the busiest in the Enoch Pratt Free Library system. The project was a reaction of sorts to library closings in other neighborhoods in the 1990s; this branch was too small and antiquated to meet the Pratt's guidelines. Roland Park residents said they would raise funds to expand the building at 5108 Roland Ave. if the Pratt would keep it open. The $3 million expansion is a high-profile project that has received extensive scrutiny. It is scheduled to reopen this fall.

IN ALEXANDER'S WORDS --It was badly in need of space and technology. It needed to be brought up to modern library standards. The original building dates from 1924. It had two stories: a basement and a first level. The dirt was pushed up against the building to make it look like a one-story building. It contained not quite 6,000 square feet of space. When it reopens this fall, it will have approximately 10,000 square feet.

WHAT INSPIRED THIS APPROACH --It was a collaborative process with the community. We had a lot of meetings. We presented a number of scenarios. This one was based on our favorite approach.

CREATING SPACE --We had a very tight site, and we wanted to be very careful how we touched the existing building. So we essentially pulled the dirt away from the original building and redesigned it so the basement becomes the first level and the first level becomes the second. We put the new spaces on the lower level so we could leave the three primary facades untouched. We also created a new main entrance on the lower level, but we kept it on the central axis so it's basically one level below where it originally was.

CHANGES INSIDE --Before, it was essentially a two-room building. There was one room on the upper level, which held videos and the children's area, and a reference area on the lower level. Now, the library has the children's area and a meeting room and circulation on the lower level. On the upper level is the technology section and the young adult reading room and the periodicals room. All the noisy or active spaces of the library are now on the lowel level. By moving circulation to the lower level, we were able to restore the vaulted space on the upper level to its original design.

OLD AND NEW --Although it's not a direct replica of the original building, the addition borrows its scale, materials and proportions from it. We wanted to be very clear about what was old and what was new, so there would be no confusion.

TRICKY FEATURE --The most talked-about piece was how to treat the old entrance with its staircase and create a new entrance from the street. What everyone didn't want was the sort of Baltimore Museum of Art situation, where you had an original grand entrance that's not used and a new entrance on the side. What everyone wanted was one entrance that's used by everyone.

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