Baltimore City

Baltimore’s Pratt Central Library emerges from renovation with its beauties intact

A resplendent Central Enoch Pratt Free Library/State Library Resource Center has emerged on Cathedral Street in downtown Baltimore. After more than three years of a basement-to-attic renovation, the 1933 main library building is a proud palace of public learning.

Patrons who used the Central Pratt for its books or attended a lecture here will certainly recognize what is one of Baltimore’s most revered interiors. But look again. Paint restorers, plaster artisans, lighting experts and people with an appreciation for history have worked all sorts of magic. There’s also a reliable heating and air conditioning system.


The elevators now arrive when the button get pushed. And everything is so clean — and smells so clean.

The majestic main hall has been scoured and shined. The structure’s central court atrium has new glass, lighting and a pristine, luminous interior. The design also achieved a welcome de-cluttering effect, and the place somehow seems larger than it ever was.


The renovation reveals just how far construction money went in the Depression of the 1930s. A corps of metalworkers, marble setters, masons, plasterers, carpenters, cabinetmakers and painters were glad to be employed during that perilous financial decade. And 86 years later, their work has never looked better.

A few mistakes of the 1950s and 1960s have been corrected. Period-style pendant lighting has replaced unflattering fluorescent tubes. Dropped ceilings are no more. Reading desks have attractive brass lighting fixtures.

It’s easy for the eyes to look upward. The ceiling in the former newspaper and reference department, now called “Best and Next” has been cleaned and relighted in a sympathetic manner. Librarians have a framed history they’ll show that explains how the elaborate plaster coffering was copied from a basilica in Rome, Saint Mary of the Altar of Heaven.

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A walk around the library shows this restoration was not a patch-up job. It was a lengthy campaign — it cost $115 million — to mend a structure that for more than 80 years has been a hard-used people’s university. Those who feared that the renovation would make the Pratt into a soulless computer information technology lab need not worry. The building retains the architectural dignity it always possessed.

The printed word still matters here. The book collection has been emphasized and fills what seem to be miles of shelving on the ground floor. The placement of these shelves urges a reader to pick up a good book and start reading.

The upper floors have additional meeting spaces for the Pratt’s calendar of talks and author events. Half the second floor is now a teen and young-adult wing, with a recording studio. There is another large chamber (with a grand piano) for performing artists. Pratt officials hope to open the building up to wider audiences in this attractive room whose numerous windows overlook the Basilica of the Assumption on Cathedral Street.

The adult services are on the first floor and the children’s department (and its Art Deco tiled goldfish pond, yes, now with reliable plumbing) remains on the ground floor.

Visitors to the library over the past three years have watched artists on scaffolds and ladders use camel’s hair brushes to bring to life the subtle decorative coffered ceiling art of the 1930s. Regrettably, these delicate silvery insets had been covered by egg-crate light panels. Now restored, they are mint green and dusty rose.


The plaster artisans have replicated the Greek key and other pattern moldings damaged in 1950s building modifications.

Library officials said the state contributed $95 million to the restoration work and Baltimore City gave $5 million. Private philanthropists contributed $15 million. They include the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Elizabeth K. Moser, Sandra R. Berman, Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Family Foundation, James and Sylvia Earl, the Jean and Sidney Silber Foundation and Exelon/BGE, plus other smaller givers.