Plan abridged to expand Free Library’s Central branch

Posted: March 14, 2011

After years of inertia and a 10-month period of reexamination, the Free Library of Philadelphia has radically altered expansion plans for its Central Branch.

A long-planned addition will be built, but its budget, size and prominence have shrunk. Instead of 180,000 square feet, it will be 80,000. Although designs have not been fleshed out, it's already clear that the addition, at 20th and Callowhill Streets, is no longer being seen as a major new entrance to the Parkway-facing library.

Commanding almost an equal portion of the construction budget are renovations to the current 1927 Beaux Arts structure of a scope substantially more ambitious than previously proposed.

Scaffolding begins going up Tuesday.

The combined budget for both projects may grow, but only modestly - to perhaps $185 million from $175 million, leaders say. Safdie Architects, the Massachusetts firm headed by Israeli-Canadian-American Moshe Safdie, will stay with the project.

A new design, at this moment still in a nebulous state, is expected to be considered by the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation board in the next few months.

The reasons for the change in course are twofold, says William R. Sasso, the board's chairman.

"We felt it was necessary to adapt to the needs of the community," he said, "and while we were succeeding at fund-raising, we had some concerns about whether we could complete fund-raising."

Sasso says he believes this iteration of the project is more findable:

"The focus is more on who's using the building and less on 'let's build a structure,' which resonates, especially with foundations."

Discrete elements of the project will be launched as funding becomes available. Construction is expected to cost $100 million ($40 million for renovations, $60 million for the addition), with another $75 million or so for endowment, land purchase, technology, furniture, and fund-raising costs.

About $85 million of the total, or about 45 percent, has been raised, says Siobhan A. Reardon, the museum's president and director. Groundbreaking on the addition won't happen until about 75 percent of the money is "in hand or in highly documented pledges, and we feel confident about the rest," Reardon said.

Long-term debt won't be assumed, Reardon and others said, since the library does not have a revenue stream (such as ticket sales) to secure a loan.

The crux of the new plan derives from the realization that two-thirds of the 300,000-square-foot building's floor space is currently devoted to nonpublic functions like storage and administration.

Under the new vision, floor area will be freed up by replacing library stacks - storage shelves original to the building on six levels - with more space-efficient equipment, and moving administration into the library's lower level.

Additionally, the library would conduct a study to determine whether any of its holdings should be put into storage or deaccessioned.

"We have to do a serious collections assessment about what we're going to keep," says Reardon, adding that perhaps some of the library's items might be more appropriately housed at the Franklin Institute or other cultural organizations.

Reardon thinks the space can be reconfigured so that two-thirds of the current building's square footage would be turned over to public u use.

A smaller addition will mean lower operational costs. More important, substantially renovating the current building - taking care of what the library already has - brings the long-stalled project a wholesome appeal that fund-raisers hope will stir excitement.

"This building is desperate for some love," Reardon said. "The Central Branch is the last piece of a total renovation of the system. Between the 1990s and 2003 every branch was renovated and got state of the art technology."

Love, in fact, starts immediately.

With long-committed funding from the Annenberg Foundation and state - money that must be spent before the end of the year - the scaffolding currently going up will enable window replacement and cleaning and repainting of masonry on the south, east and west sides. The north side will remain untouched for now since a portion of that side of the building will likely be torn away to connect with the addition.

Shakespeare Park, the small patch of green between the main entrance and Parkway, will receive a facelift.

Though Safdie - whose firm also designed the curvaceous, airy Salt Lake City Public Library - will no longer be the author of a new main entrance in the addition, he is expected to redesign to some degree the interior of the main entrance of the current building facing the Parkway.

Renovation of the current building - designed by the firm headed by socially connected architect Horace Trumbauer - is an opportunity for some much-needed attention, said Reardon.

Parts of the rare book collection will be upgraded. Building systems will be made modern. Conference rooms will be built on the fourth floor.

Since the lower level will be turned over to administrative offices, Montgomery Auditorium, the current venue for lectures and concerts, will disappear.

The auditorium will be replaced with a new one in the Safdie building, along with a new children's department, a space for teens, the business library and career-education center.

The revamped project comes two years after Reardon became director. After initial challenges with the library's operating budget and curtailment of hours, Reardon approached the board in May and asked for permission to reexamine the project.

"The building to the north was going to be the focus, and we said this building has to be the focus. The reality is, people weren't going to walk up 20th Street and enter the building," she said.

Reardon says the delay in the project - and its many design and budget changes - have given the library a chance to sort out its priorities, and to fully consider the changing role of libraries in a search-engine world.

Under the new plan, some departments will move and other remain. Reardon says the reorganization of spaces - not to mention a portion of the library's nearly eight million items - will largely be an undoing of the building's current system. "Part of the joy is to de-Dewey the building," she says, referring to the Dewey Decimal System of organizing holdings that is standard to libraries.

Some departments will remain where they are - rare books, music, the popular library, for instance - while others, such as the children's section, will be relocated.

The aim is to shift the mission from the library being a "keeper" to being a "sharer," Reardon says.

"It's not going to be about collections. It's going to be about community engagement."


Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. He blogs at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch.

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