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Library Fulfills Promise Of Renewal

July 30, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON

Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago has espoused a straightforward philosophy about running his city: Take care of schools, parks and libraries, and all else will follow.

Libraries, did you ask? Definitely. Smart civic leaders all over the country know they have to invest in these essential public institutions. Daley has built or fully renovated an astounding 45 libraries in the city, including the spectacular Harold Washington Library Center. If you've been to Chicago lately, it's doing quite well. Seattle, Denver, San Antonio and a host of other cities have also opened grand libraries.

And so, finally, will Hartford.

The Hartford Public Library expansion and renovation has been going on for so long - the first plan was in 1995 - that I began to think it would be, like the Cross Bronx Expressway, something that was always under construction. I'm happy to report I'm wrong. Much of the two-phase $42 million project will be done by the end of the summer, and the cafe and bookstore, along with some exterior work, will be finished by January.

I went through the building last week with chief librarian Louise Blalock.

The original 1957 building was an engineering marvel, built on steel trusses at 500 Main St. over the Whitehead-Conland Highway. For that it was a dull box of a building, not involved, easy to miss.

On the inside, the building had a heavy and compartmentalized feel to it. The ceilings were low. Nothing was easily connected to anything else. Half the collection was in closed stacks. The building said nothing about the joy of reading.

The new project's architects, Fletcher Harkness Cohen Moneyhun of Boston and Sevigny Architects of Hartford, took on both challenges. The first phase of the project was an addition to the back of the building, with a parking deck. Phase 2 was a remodeling of the original building. The project adds 45,000 square feet to the original 100,000 square feet of floor space, which means that the entire collection will now be open and accessible.

The interior space is a triumph. By using a lot of glass and a major interior atrium, the building has been opened up and organized. It feels taller and lighter. The children's room, already open in the new part of the building, is bright, airy and inviting, and indeed is drawing large crowds of youngsters. The central atrium with an interesting cantilevered staircase is a focal point, connecting the various parts of the building. The library will have more rooms for classes, meetings, reading, writing and special collections.

The major exterior statement is a slanted glass atrium on the front of the building that seems to bring the library closer to Main Street. With the plaza that is still under construction, it will now be impossible to miss the library. The building has been opened to the point where one can stand in front and look through it, to the treetops on the East Hartford side of the Connecticut River.

"We were a ho-hummer, but we're about to be a landmark," Blalock said. I don't know if I'm ready to go that far just yet, but she may be right. The library now occupies an entire city block. It has a presence.

Three issues. One, the front atrium is a huge expanse of glass. It faces the afternoon sun, which could turn the building into a giant parked car and challenge the air-conditioning system. Blalock hopes to have special screens to solve the problem, if there's money in the budget. There needs to be.

Then there's parking. The library's parking deck is unfortunately right across the street from the entrance to city hall. What the city has done is put meters on the spaces except for spots it's saved for city council members and city officials, including the mayor's staff. The mayor's staff cannot walk one short block from the city lot on Sheldon Street? Not only do they need the exercise, but the exercise might inspire more vigorous thinking than is evident in the parking plan. We have to keep nine spots vacant all day on the chance that council members might show up? Note: None of the library staff parks there.

The better way to do it would be a gate-controlled system that gave first priority to library patrons, let the public in and let council members park for free as needed.

Finally, the library is sometimes used by homeless people, especially during the colder months, and this makes some other patrons uncomfortable. Most of the homeless behave themselves; some read, some play chess. Blalock's staff is trained to deal with anyone who comes in.

The library should be open to everyone, but it shouldn't have to run an adult day-care center. This is yet another reason supportive housing for the city's homeless population would be a good idea, as would more daytime programs for shelter residents.

Some years ago I saw a century-old photograph of the Seward Park Branch of the New York Public Library in Lower Manhattan. There were immigrant children, mostly Jewish, lined up around the block, waiting to take out books. I had never seen the case for libraries made more eloquently. The new Hartford Public Library is cause for celebration.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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