I got a jolt entering the central Enoch Pratt Free Library this week. Its central hall, one of those grand Baltimore chambers that never seemed to change, was now a series of low-ceiling plywood passageways — no looking up 40 feet to a mural of the Gutenberg printing press.
It's now 14 months into the $115 million renovation of the Central Library/State Library Resource Center. The second floor of this venerable Cathedral Street landmark will reopen in the late fall. The full project will not be complete until 2019.
John Richardson, the Pratt's director of facilities, led the way on a hard-hat tour of this work in progress. As he stressed that the 84-year structure required a thorough mechanical makeover, our elevator quit — as if to prove his point. We took the stairs.
A half-hour into this tour it became clear this was not a patch-up. This is a campaign to prepare a building that has always been a free and open people's research center for another another eight or more decades of hard use.
One goal is to create additional meeting spaces for the library's popular talks. Half the second floor will become a new teen and young-adult wing, with a recording studio. All adult services will move to the first floor, and the children's department (and its tiled goldfish pond, with upgraded plumbing) will remain on the ground floor.
It is not accurate to call the work that's being done a restoration, yet I saw much architectural heritage being painstaking restored. Who knew that a building renowned for an interior of rich wood paneling, elaborate plaster work and metal arabesques had even more good stuff hidden?
Restoration artists on scaffolds and ladders worked their camel's hair brushes over some decorative ceiling art reminiscent of Pompei painted in the 1930s, but covered by painting and florescent "egg crate" light fixtures more than 50 years ago.
"We had evidence the murals were there, but you can have the original 1931 blueprints, and nothing about the painting decoration will be indicated," said Richardson.
The newly exposed, eye-popping painted scenes resemble the trim around some wealthy person's best porcelain dinner service.
The ceiling, which would be a credit to a fine hotel, is decorated with sandpipers and blue herons.
The plaster and fancy painting work has been subcontracted to New York's Evergreene Architectural Arts, a firm called in to rescue the Kansas Capitol, the Yale Club of New York tap room, and Van Cleef and Arpels jewelry store in New York.
The plaster artisans are reproducing yards of Greek key and other pattern moldings that were slashed up in earlier renovations.
Inside the library's central hall, Richardson showed that 84 years of settlement, and the occasional water leak, caused some of the plaster rosettes in this grand architectural composition to shatter.
This central court is lighted by a pair of enormous skylights. Their glass is being replaced or repaired and new LED lighting added.
Just this week, sets of the library's original bronze windows began returning from Femenella & Associates in Branchburg, N.J., where they were sent for reconditioning.
Library officials said the state has contributed $99 million to the restoration work and Baltimore City has given $5.3 million. The leading private donors include the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Moser Family Philanthropic Fund, Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Family Foundation, James and Sylvia Earl, the Jean and Sidney Silber Foundation, and Exelon BGE, plus many other smaller givers.
And in the midst of all this work, led by Gilbane Construction, the library remains open to the public.