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An old gem gets a new setting

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Some communities have a school in the center. Others have a church or a post office. Baltimore's Roland Park is one of the fortunate few that has a public library at its core -- Branch No. 25 of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Preserving the centrality of that gray stone landmark -- both as a work of architecture and a municipal treasure -- is the primary objective and the chief accomplishment of a $1 million expansion plan developed to prevent the library from closing.

Outside, the design doubles the library's size while keeping the original structure the focus of attention. Inside, it adds the appurtenances and spaces needed by today's libraries while returning the main reading room to its old, uncluttered appearance.

The result is a breakthrough project for a talented young design team -- Charles Alexander of Alexander Design Studio and Laurie McLain of McLain Associates, both in Ellicott City -- undertaking its first major institutional project in Baltimore.

Working with Joseph Mason of Probst-Mason Inc., a veteran at library and school design, they have come up with a solution that promises to keep this civic heirloom a cherished part of Roland Park.

The plan represents a reaction of sorts to recent library closings in two other city neighborhoods, Charles Village and Morrell Park. Roland Park residents didn't want to lose their branch, which is too small to meet the Pratt's latest guidelines. The Roland Park branch has 4,240 square feet of space; the guidelines recommend each branch contain at least 6,000 square feet.

Designed by Buckler and Fenhagen of Baltimore, the two-story building at 5108 Roland Avenue opened in 1924 and has become a community emblem. Residents are attached to its thick stone walls, its symmetrical arched openings and central stair, the hipped slate roof that terminates in overhanging eaves. Soft in tone and imposing in a quiet sort of way, it's the essence of Roland Park charm and stability.

However, the library is showing its age. Last extensively remodeled in the 1960s, it needs more than a few upgrades. The list includes a wheelchair-accessible entrance and restrooms, an elevator, a multipurpose room, more computer work stations, a reading room for periodicals, a larger children's area and expanded work space for librarians.

While these improvements will clearly help the library function better, they present a challenge for the designers. Because the library is so symmetrical, adding onto it is like adding onto an egg. How could they create the desired space without making it seem like an unwanted appendage?

Solving a dilemma

After exploring and rejecting several straightforward solutions -- including a two-story addition to the north -- the designers took an unconventional approach.

They decided to keep the three most visible sides of the library intact and wrap the addition around the north and west walls. They opted to remove a small wing on the west side to make way for the two-story addition.

The site of the removed wing will become the location for a new circular stairway and elevator that will provide access from both levels of the existing library to both levels of the addition. As a result, the addition only "penetrates" the old building's main level on the west side, which is not visible from Roland Avenue.

By wrapping the addition around the back and north side, the designers provided additional space while giving the original structure the prominence it deserves. To further play down the impact of the addition, the designers distributed the space so there is considerably more room on the lower level than the floor above.

The boldest design stroke was in the creation of a new entrance. The original building has stairs that are not accessible to the disabled. Instead of installing a mechanical lift or creating a secondary entry, the architects decided to excavate the ground near the entrance and create a new front door one level beneath the existing one.

Patrons will either walk down several steps or follow a gently sloping ramp, which is ideal for strollers and book carts as well as wheelchairs. This lower level will house the circulation desk, multipurpose room, staff work room, space for videos and other high-demand materials, and an expanded children's area.

It may seem counterintuitive to go down instead of up, but this circulation sequence offers many functional advantages. By lowering the entrance, the architects were able to put all of the noisy areas associated with checking in and out of the library on the lower level. That frees the upper level to house all the quiet spaces for reading and study, including the adult reading room and reference area.

The reading room itself will be restored to its original appearance. A drop ceiling that was installed in the 1960s will be removed to reveal the vaulted ceiling above. Arches above the windows will be uncovered, too, letting more natural light into the space below.

The upper level of the addition will contain spaces designed to supplement the main reading room, which will be reserved for adult fiction and non-fiction. On the far north side will be the reading room for periodicals, a vaulted space designed to echo the feel of the adult reading room. Between it and the original building will be a reading area for young adults and a terrace that serves as an outdoor reading room for the library. On the far west side, the library will have almost five times more space than before for reference and technology, including 12 computer work stations.

On the lower level, an amphitheater will be created beside the entrance for children awaiting rides. Another amphitheater will be created indoors to serve as a storytelling area for children. A glass artist, Dan Herman of Relay, has been commissioned to create works that will be incorporated throughout the building.

At each step along the way, the architects have been careful to make distinctions between old and new. While the original building is formal, the addition is informal. Walls of the upper level will be clad in light-colored precast stone, so they form a neutral backdrop for the original library. The roof of the addition may be slate like the original, but its irregular shape will reflect the rooflines found in residences nearby. Windows, too, are irregularly spaced in contrast with the symmetry of the older arched windows. A new wall along the Roland Avenue side gently curves to lead patrons toward the entrance.

The designers felt it would be inappropriate to mimic the 1924 structure. "We didn't want to come in with a Disney World addition," said Alexander. "We tried to figure out all the things about the old building that people love and accentuate that in the new building. But we let the old building be the jewel."

Final stages

At this point, the architects are still finalizing design details. Since they don't know what sort of facing they will discover on the library's base until the surrounding area has been excavated, they can't say exactly how it will be clad. They're also still designing the new front door and outdoor amphitheater area.

While the decision to excavate along Roland Avenue makes sense, the original building's symmetry would be reinforced more if the designers unearthed both sides of the base rather than just the northern half. It would be fitting if the curved wall of the addition's lower level were clad as much as possible with the same Butler stone that was used to build the original -- an idea the designers are exploring.

The bottom line is that the architects have come up with a sound strategy for addressing the library's shortcomings, without marring or mocking the original structure. It is as if the designers discovered an old family ring, polished the stone and gave it a new setting. The original gem is still the feature; all else is support.

Alexander noted a parallel between the library and the Eddie's of Roland Park supermarket across the street, a business known for its polite employees who greet customers at the door and carry their bags to the car. Both, he said, have had to keep up with the times while holding on to certain traditions.

At Eddie's, "They still take your bags to the car, but now you can pay by sliding your ATM card," he said. "This will be a library for the 21st century, but the restored reading room will remind people of the past. It's a way of having both at the same time."

Nowadays, when people can obtain information from home through the Internet and other digital means, the role of the public library is changing. At its best, it's no longer just a storehouse for data, but a gathering place for the community and a forum for the exchange of ideas. The architects' thoughtful plan for expansion promises that Roland Park's library will fill all those roles for years to come.

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