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Reborn Library Reconnects With City


January 20, 2008

If you think of the city as a human body, parts of the city can easily be seen as various organs or limbs. Atrain station is a metaphor for the feet, its roads and streets make up the circulatory system, parks are the lungs, an art museum might be the eyes, the ears are a concert hall. Hartford's higher functions the brain and the life of the mind are now housed in a beautiful new library on Main Street.

"New" library? Hasn't the city's library always been on Main Street, first housed in the Wadsworth Atheneum and, for the past 50 years, in its own building between Arch and Sheldon streets? I say "new" because the library's transformation over the past eight years has been so complete as to render it reborn, emerging from its cocoon of scaffolding a new building of light, views and civic welcome.

Earlier this month, with the cut of a ribbon, the last piece in the library's major makeover, which started in 1995 and was designed by Fletcher Harkness Cohen Moneyhun-Stopfel in Boston with Sevigny Architects in Hartford, officially opened to the public.

The new plaza and elegantly curved glass facade overlooking Main Street gives the building a welcoming front door. What a contrast to the reserved, low and compressed entry it once had. Everything about the building, completed in 1957, designed by the Hartford firm Schutz & Goodwin, reflected a world different than the one we live in now. The Information Age hadn't begun. Libraries had more in common with dusty museums, where knowledge was codified and protected from the public (you could not wander freely through the stacks). The building had discrete chambers with little penetration between them.

Even though a public building, the library pulled back from the edge of Main Street, stand-offish and not particularly friendly. Heavy brick walls with thick, marble-edged window frames had the feeling of a fortress. There was little that visually beckoned you inside.

The new Hartford Public Library is now completely different, and this difference reflects how we view the sharing of information through greater access and visibility. The 44,000-square-foot addition, completed in 2004, uses glass as a key element of the design. The library's single-story wing to the east grew by three stories with a sleek, horizontal glass facade holding 21,000 square feet for new collection spaces and offices.

The central event is a four-story atrium with a hovering staircase and a sloped glass roof that brings natural light deep into the library. On the lowest level is a reading area that is also used for lectures and musical performances. Facing onto the sunlit atrium are floors with glass walls that make the interior virtually transparent you can stand on the staircase, thrust into space and see throughout the library's four levels.

To the east, the library grew a new 23,000-square-foot wing stretching along Arch Street, providing a new entrance connected to a new parking deck. The high point here is the new children's library on the top level, which has great views of city hjall and Adriaen's Landing, with pools of light spilling from above through square clerestory volumes that pop up on the roof (they also hide air-conditioning equipment). When these portions were completed in 2004, many of the library's services were moved here while the original building underwent its transformation.

The architects continued the theme that Hartford's head librarian, Louise Blalock, has championed: opening the building up to light and views, and making the whole library experience more welcoming and accessible. Low spaces inside the entry are visually expanded, with mirrored ceiling tiles that seem to make the space taller. The central "Interactivity Center" is filled with computer stations that are easily accessed by visitors who can come in, hop on the Net, and tap into global information sources.

On either side of this space are two-story reading rooms with high windows that bring in natural light. On the upper stories are new study rooms, spaces for the Hartford History Center, a computer lab, the Wallace Stevens Writing Room, a gallery for Connecticut illustrators and authors, the Hartford Collection Room and various support spaces.

But the best part of the new library is right on Main Street. A three-story glass wall, supported by brushed stainless steel connectors, arcs out from the corner of the original north wing and lands on the brick south wing.

On the top floor, this graceful curve of glass contains an exhibit gallery that looks down into the glass-enclosed space below. Moving closer to the gallery's glass walls on the third floor, one sees the great sweep of Main Street as it glides past the library, with city hall jutting into view, the towers and steeples farther up Main and the ancient facade of the Wadsworth beyond. It is a grand architectural gesture, one that scoops up the city and brings it into the new library.

The message here is as clear as the plate glass wall itself: The library and all it holds is a gift to the city, presented in a giant jewel case. One of the most dramatic views of the new facade is from your car as you head around Pulaski Circle and east down Whitehead Highway. At night, the building seems to float like a cloud of light.

On the first floor, one passes through the glass wall into a glass foyer, and then into the library itself. To the right of the foyer is a second set of doors that lead into a 2,100-square-foot space that will soon (if all goes well) hold a bookstore and cafe. The dual entrance allows the cafe to be open after the library closes, providing a spark of street life at night not far from the museum.

The new terrace overlooking Main could be populated with patrons at cafe tables during warm weather. It's a laudable urban idea, but the cafe/bookstore's success might be challenged by what is still a substantial distance from the street edge. I hope I'm wrong. Bustling summer nights on the new library terrace with a coffee and a book could really catch on.

Michael J. Crosbie, an architect in Essex, is chairman of the University of Hartford's Department of Architecture and a member of the Place Board of Contributors.

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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