Plans For New Library Evoke Area's History

Ellicott City Branch Saves Views, Links To The Outside

August 16, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,

Four decades ago, when Columbia pioneer Andrea Gruhl worked part-time at what was then called the Frederick Road Library in Ellicott City, then-county commissioner Charles E. Miller's cattle grazed right outside the small red brick and glass building, she said.

"I was sure I was the only librarian in the whole United States who had that view, and now we're going back to that," she said, delighted.

Gruhl was among about 35 people who Monday night attended the first of two meetings at what is now called the Charles E. Miller library to find out more about the mega-replacement building set to rise next year just behind the current, outmoded library.

She and others seemed happy to find that the $30 million, 63,000-square-foot two-story stone, glass and metal structure will have features inside and out intended to evoke hints of the county's history, and preserve natural views and links to the environment.

With a proposed organic garden for children behind the building and a green, plant-covered roof visible to second-floor readers inside, the building will also house the county's historical society, have about 70 computers, and about 100,000 more books and materials to loan than the current 23,000-square-foot building.

The building Gruhl recalls was 5,000 square feet, built on farmland donated by the late Miller, until it was expanded in the 1980s.

Once the new building is complete in 2011, the current library will be renovated for administrative space, which will in turn free office and parking spaces for use by patrons in Columbia's two libraries.

"With the new Miller branch, we're going to bring history to life," library director Valerie Gross told the group, which did not include Mary Catherine Cochran, whose Preservation Howard County group criticized the building's design as too modern for a setting along what was once the historic National Road west.

But Melanie Hennigan, a principal at Grimm and Parker, the Calverton-based architects who designed the East Columbia Library two decades ago, said that such a large new building simply can't resemble a quaint stone Colonial cottage.

Still, she met with Cochran, she said, and decided as a result to use both gray and brown stone on the project instead of only gray.

"All gray on a cold winter day doesn't look very good," she said. The link to the outdoors is another theme, she said.

"You're going to feel very connected to nature," she told the crowd, referring to the second-floor view of the "green" roof.

A free-standing stone bridge wall near the entrance is intended to evoke the county's past, she said, and a water feature just inside the entrance will mark the start of a winding pathway through the first floor meant to suggest the winding Patapsco River's path along the county's northern edge.

Gary Hamer of Dorsey Search said it reminded him of the Patapsco Female Institute ruins behind the county circuit courts building, though others thought it looks more like the old Thomas Viaduct railroad bridge in Elkridge.

The large old pine trees along Frederick Road will be removed, Hennigan said, and replaced by a double row of purple plum and magnolia trees to add color and depth.

"It's going to be highly visible from Frederick Road," she said about the new building. "We looked at the history of Howard County and we're finding the spirit and poetry or essence of this place - the birthplace of America's Industrial Revolution."

The stone exterior helps provide that link, she said, while the large glass surfaces add views outside and the link to the future.

Inside, teens will have a room designed like a big iPod, which is what Hennigan said young people said in surveys they want, and a large children's area on the first floor will have its own bathrooms. Small features for children will be a wall reminiscent of the castle at the old Enchanted Forest amusement park.

Priority parking will be provided for hybrid and electric vehicles, plus bicycles, and the building is to be environmentally friendly in design. The shelves will be arranged to allow staff clear sight lines everywhere throughout each floor.

An idea for a large atrium with a spiral staircase was scrapped when the financial pressures of the recession began to be felt, Hennigan said.

That prompted Sara Hamer to voice another commonly held thought.

"We're really very fortunate to be talking about opening a new library when other places are talking about closing them," she said to a round of general applause.

Gross asked for more feedback and ideas on the 6,500-square-foot children's garden, which would be built on land that eventually might provide expansion space for the building.

"It's really going to be an exciting space," said Ellen Flynn Giles, a county school board member who attended.

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