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Gorgeous or homely, libraries are temples of learning and fun

November 24, 2010

New York Public Library: Now that's a temple.

Public libraries are like babies: There aren’t any ugly ones. In a way, then, Flavorwire’s round-up of the “The Most Beautiful Libraries in the US” is as wrong as a baby beauty pageant. On the other hand, I’ll concede, it’s always better to have a handsome building than otherwise, if given the choice.

My first library was a storefront on Tazewell Street in the small Appalachian town of Wytheville, Virginia. It was on the way home from the elementary school, and I stopped in almost every day to wander the stacks, take in the heady aroma of book must and chat with the librarian, a tiny smiling woman who encouraged me to read books beyond my age group.

To me, no library can ever be more beautiful than that homely little place where my incipient love of reading was flamed into a full-fledged romance with books. I wish I could call the librarian’s name to mind so I can give her the credit she deserves. I’m sure every reader in the country has a similar origin story.

Still, we should opt for great architecture whenever possible, just as we choose great books. After all, a book lives inside of us, but we live wthin the visual atmosphere established by the buildings that surround us. Buildings influence mood, whether we are aware of it or not.

The libraries celebrated by Flavorwire are a gorgeous lot — for the most part.

At the risk of seeming an architectural luddite, stuck in the middle of the last century, I admit to a lack of love for the ultra-contemporary architecture of today. You know what I mean — the swoopy, buulging or angular kind of whimsy in which form follows imagination, with a nary a thought to function.

An example from the Flavorwire list: Philadelphia’s Parkway Central Library, which looks like it has radioactive tumor bulging out one side.

Parkway Central Library, Phliladelphia

Other buildings on the list range from the neo-classical majesty of the New York Public Library, with its eternally vigilant lions to the Berkeley Public Library, which looks like an unusually sleek bank building, to the Central Library of the Atlanta-Fulton County system, which resembles nothing so much as a Borg cube space ship.

What I don’t understand is how the editors could have left out the Broward County Main Library in Fort Lauderdale, a Modern classic designed by Robert Gatje and constructed 1980-84. Inside and out, it’s a work of art yet effortlessly functional, too.

Here, if you don’t believe me, have a look:

Share your story of library love, if you please, and if you have a beautiful library in your hometown, explain why it should be on the Flavorwire list.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    November 24, 2010 1:00 pm

    The New York Public Library you pictured is certainly grand. But I was intimidated by it. So I checked out books and studied more at the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village. However, you can’t beat the public library in rural Rocky Mount, VA, complete with its local artwork and much-needed meeting rooms. I know Roanoke teachers who opt to drive in to Rocky Mount to use its library.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 24, 2010 7:54 pm

      The Rocky Mount library is certainly lovely. I enjoyed my excursion there very much.

    • Sean Piccoli permalink
      November 26, 2010 7:39 am

      Candice, I am going to burrow into the JeffMarket branch on your recommendation. A library in Greenwich Village has to be cool.

  2. John Karwacki permalink
    November 24, 2010 1:41 pm

    Enoch Pratt Free Library, Central Branch, located at 400 Cathedral Street in downtown Baltimore, Maryland. Amazing shrine to the written word. Museum like and gorgeous, I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the place. Armed guards manned the turnstiles to twart juvenile delinquents such as myself from running off with copies of Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book”. There was a room dedicated to Poe and his work. A H.L. Mencken room for those who prefer their newsman crustier than Chauncey, as if. Ornate copper ceilings and columns stolen from some Roman Empire dream, the place was mind-expanding in the very best sense.
    Oh yes, I too love the Main library in FLL, I could live on the fourth floor if they’d let me cook.
    Cheers, Chauncey on another fine blog.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 24, 2010 8:00 pm

      John, you know, I almost mentioned the Enoch Pratt Free Library, but I couldn’t find a decent photo of it. I was there a few years ago with my friend Lauraa Lippman, who was showing my daughters and me around literary B-more. We paid a pilgrimage to Poe’s tomb, too.Do you know why it’s called the Enoch Pratt FREE Library? If memory serves, Laura said it’s because the original organizers were worried the working-class people of Balitmore would think it wasn’t meant for them…If I got this story right, then credit Laura. If I messed it up, blame me.

  3. Sean Piccoli permalink
    November 24, 2010 4:17 pm

    Hi Chauncey. Great work on Book Fair. You made me wish I was there.

    I just joined the NY Public Library and have been visiting branches around Manhattan, where wi-fi for laptops abounds. They range as you note of libraries all over from homely (but functional) to palatial. Going to various ones has helped me embed into the place.

    I signed up at the main on 42nd St/Murray Hill and found it not at all intimidating – more like a place religiously suited to its mission. It made me want to read, which I sat down and did once I got a card. I was definitely awed, but then very snug at a table among other folks with a copy of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs (my first pretentiously NYC moment), which I remembered from Paul Auster’s “Book of Illusions.”

    I’ve also been to branches on Mulberry St (Village), 23rd St (Chelsea), 145th St (Harlem) and midtown (Madison and 34th). I share tables with students, job seekers like me and a few crazies who actually take alright so far to being “shushed” by other patrons.

    The Madison/34th branch is like a big, sunken Swiss-designed living room. Sleek and seemingly MOMA-inspired. But very useable: It’s home of Job Central and Financial Literacy Center, both of which could be of benefit to me.

    Mulberry St has some of that same vertical, tiered effect, but is smaller and with an older-looking downstairs set of stacks, as if a modernist top was dropped onto a book-storage basement.

    The Chelsea branch and then the 145th St Hamilton Grange branch, near where I’m staying, are old-school Romanesque municipal blocs. It’s not an ironclad rule but the branches tend to reflect the surrounding neighbhorhoods in terms of wealth. 34th and Main branches are temples. Chelsea (which is trendy but still home for lower income folks) and 145th are modest community outlets.

    There are a bunch more in all five boroughs I may never get to. And I ordered my first DVDs but forgot to pick them up.

    I have never seen the Main Broward/FtL Library look so bejeweled. I liked it and used it, but didn’t step back and really look at its lines. Good eye. Also enjoyed John’s description of the Pratt which I must visit someday. I’ve been to Poe and Mencken houses, though. Amtrak to Bawlmer ASAP.

    Couple of personal faves:

    The library at my high school in NJ where I sat and researched and wrote a long paper on Brown V. Board of Ed for my first non-D in history class.

    The Fairfax County Public Library in Burke, Va., which was built in the ’80s and has a layered, receding clock-tower motif. Fun outside and in.

    (Not a favorite, but The Texas Book Depository, in Dallas, was memorable on a visit in 1988 for its historical spooky barrenness, and the corner upstairs where they’ve supposedly left everything as LHO did. I am not morbid I don’t think or an assassination buff, but it was tough not to look out the window at Dealey Plaza and imagine what had happened. Creepy.)

    I’m definitely reading more since I got here! Cheers, S.

  4. Andrea Vigil permalink
    November 24, 2010 5:03 pm

    Chauncey, I couldn’t agree with you more regarding the Broward County Main Library. I love hanging out there, especially on weekdays.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 24, 2010 8:04 pm

      Sean, thanks for the tour of Manhattan libraries. I feel like I’ve been there and back in the last three minutes. You know, it’s one of my goals in life to live at the Chelsea Hotel — in 1969. Sigh. Once again: Where’s that Way Back Machine? Great to hear from you, pal. Best of luck in the Apple.

      • Sean Piccoli permalink
        November 26, 2010 7:42 am

        For now we’ll just have to play back A. Escovedo’s ‘Chelsea Hotel ’78’ from ‘Real Animal’ and even he’s off by nine years.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 24, 2010 8:05 pm

      Andrea, thanks for the comment. Yeah, the library is awesome.

  5. rachel permalink
    November 24, 2010 9:22 pm

    I’m appalled at the ugly tumor that the Philadelphia library has grown since I left the beautiful city. I loved that library and was always impressed by it’s old world charm. It was a large, beautiful, strong building that needed no improvement. Certainly none of the modern radioactive growth kind.

    I have always loved the library in downtown Fort Lauderdale, and seeing the image here only makes me more proud. It is quite a sight to see. And as you mentioned, Mr. Chauncey Mabe, it is also rather functional and roomy and with the multiple floors it has always made me feel like there is literally an entire world of books to explore there.

    I agree with everything else you said about the need for beautiful libraries and yet also just the need for libraries beautiful or not. Beautiful is always preferable but small town store front libraries are great too.

    I always loved the library in downtown West Palm Beach, with it’s large windows and central location. I loved it best for its children section which took up the whole bottom floor and made it fee like a world unto itself, a world in which you didn’t have to worry about the grown-ups looking at their grown-up books but in which you still respected the books and the need for quiet. They have torn down that building in the last few years. I am told by friends that they have built a beautiful new library, but I haven’t seen it and I’m not sure if what they mean by beautiful is the same thing I mean by beautiful. What I really want is my old library back. However, to their credit, they tore it down and put nothing but grass and trees in its place. Which leaves a clear view to the water. This is honorable, yet it was the rightful place of a wonderful library whose absence I will always mourn.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 24, 2010 9:31 pm

      Nicely said, Rachel, every bit of it. We mourn our first library, once its gone, like we morn lost first love.

    • Sean Piccoli permalink
      November 26, 2010 7:47 am

      The Philly branch reminds me of two sports stadium refurbs – Soldier Field in Chicago where they put a pointy steel wreath on the old Greco-Roman base, and Dolphin Stadium with its new glass and steel bubbling. Wonder if the same architect did all three. The modernist add-on technique may work better on sportsplexes than libraries.

  6. November 24, 2010 10:02 pm

    Oh lord libraries, Chauncey. They in a very real sense saved my life. They were a haven from a lot of nastiness that dented my childhood. My only regret has to do with the little library in Littleton, CO. I went there frequently for about two months. I was working as a laborer on the Minuteman Missile sites, but those jobs went where all construction jobs go. I had “borrowed” O. E. Rolvaag’s PEDER VICTORIOUS after reading GIANTS IN THE EARTH (one of the best books ever written about the settling of Minnesota) – anyway, long story short, I took Peder with me to the next job, which was in CA. Yeah, I never returned that book and have felt guilty about it every time the subject of libraries comes up. Silly, I suppose, but I wish I still had Peder and could sent it back to them, but time & travel & who knows where it’s gone. BTW it wasn’t as good as GIANTS.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 25, 2010 1:42 am

      Nice story, Duff. I confess I have a few library books in my collection, too. Some of them are discards, picked up for a dollar, but others are the result of early book lust, resulting in rare and random bouts of book thievery. I’m not proud — but I’m not altogether guilt ridden, either.

  7. December 11, 2010 1:34 pm

    good job for you !

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