A new chapter is opening for the Pratt Library


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.

While the layout makes it easy for patrons to find the new public spaces, the detailing makes it hard to tell that they are new at all. From the terrazzo floors and wooden casework in the corridors to the pleasing proportions and soothing colors of the reading rooms, the annex benefits from the same quiet elegance and attention to detail that are hallmarks of the 1933 building.

"This building is an addition to the central library," said Vicchio, the project manager. "We wanted it to be a good neighbor and complement the original building, but expressed in a slightly more modern way. It's detailed to be of its time yet deeply connected to its place, with spaces that are just as beautiful as the ones in the original building.

Attention to detail is evident in the careful way the architects broke through the west wall of the 1933 building to create a portal to the annex. A connecting corridor features display cases for rotating exhibits -- indoor counterparts to the Cathedral Street storefronts -- and graphics by Chermayeff and Geismar that celebrate ornamentation on the 1933 building.

A 1930s look

The African American Reading Room is a two-story space with sage-green walls, a patterned carpet and large, north-facing windows that let in plenty of natural light. The lower windows are separated by shelves that make it seem as if books are enclosing the space; more books line the other three sides of the room. Reading tables are equipped with outlets for laptop computers. But other than those high-tech connections, there is very little in this room that couldn't have been built in the 1930s. The green walls, wood trim and amber wall sconces come together to create an environment that is peaceful, tranquil, ideal for contemplation and learning. It should also be a popular spot for readings and other gatherings.

The smaller Mencken Room, containing works of the famed essayist, was designed to be more like a fine residential library, with high ceilings, recessed wood shelving and draperies evoking a 19th-century drawing room.

The Maryland Reading Room has the same footprint as the African American room below, but its ceiling is not quite as high. Because this room is on the building's top level, the architects were able to cap it with a glass-sided "roof monitor" that lets in light from all directions. From the center of the room, it's possible to look up through the glass and view an ornate frieze on the west wall of the 1933 building -- a reminder of the fine craftsmanship that set the tone for the annex.

Jeff Korman, manager of the Maryland Department, said he has taken advantage of the move to rearrange portions of the collection, giving prime space to materials in high demand, such as books on genealogy and law. "We're able to give our customers access to materials that would have been out of the way before or they would have had to obtain special permission to get to," he said. "We're bringing them closer to the public."

One move that seems out of character with the rest of the design was the decision to install tall black filing cabinets in the Maryland Reading Room. Four drawers high, these vertical files subdivide the room, making it more difficult to perceive as one grand space. They also block views of the wooden casework for those standing by the reference desk. Lower cabinets with wood veneers wouldn't have been nearly as intrusive.

Democracy in action

The exterior, meanwhile, is as respectful of the original building as the interior spaces. The annex doesn't actually come down to the ground but rises above the library for the blind, whose one-story link to the main library was clad in granite and designed to bear the weight.

Ayers Saint Gross gave the annex a symmetrical facade featuring windows that echo the rhythms and proportions of those on the 1933 building, and a limestone veneer that matches the limestone on the older building. The architects clearly drew inspiration from the 1933 building but used somewhat crisper, simpler detailing.

Portions of the annex's north wall were scored horizontally to indicate where bookshelves are located inside. At dusk, when lights are on in the reading rooms, the building glows like a lantern. It's a pleasing composition that honors the main building and makes the adjacent library for the blind less of a stand-alone curiosity on the corner.

The annex is separated from the 1933 building by a staff entrance that's recessed from Franklin Street -- a more respectful solution than jamming the new building up against the old. A metal gate from the library's old children's department now encloses the staff entrance -- a further sign of the architects' efforts to carry the spirit of the original building over to the addition.

Above the Franklin Street entrance is inscribed Frederick Douglass' statement about books setting readers "forever free."

One reason many people have a strong affection for the Pratt library, says executive director Carla Hayden, who chose the quote, is that it was one of the few places in Baltimore where black people could mingle with white people before the 1950s.

The annex also brings to mind a quote from Mencken: "Democracy," he said, "is the theory that people know what they want and deserve to get it."

The central building of the Enoch Pratt Free Library was democracy in action when it opened in the 1930s. It has served Maryland well for seven decades. By tucking much-needed expansion space and 21st-century technology into such a sensitively designed envelope, the Pratt's directors and architects have taken an exceptional library and made it even better.

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