Georgian Elegance, 21st-Century Technology Joined in Reborn Brooklyn College Library

The new library's information services desk.
When architect Alexander Howe first stood in front of the building that would be his next project, the Brooklyn College Library, he thought it was “a fabulously beautiful building that had been sidelined. The main entrance had been closed.”

Stuck behind the lovely 1937 neo-Georgian building was an unlovely 1959 addition. “A typical 1950s box with kind of turquoise-blue porcelain panels and an aluminum curtain wall, without any of the warmth of the original building,” Howe said. Inside was an even sorrier sight. “The first word that came into my mind was ‘moribund,’” he recalled. “It was really in worse shape than anything I had worked on, just about falling down. And yet incredibly wonderful activity was going on in there, in spite of the fact that the ceiling tiles were hanging down and the vinyl tiles were peeling up from the floor.”

A tower section of the library's new wing.
But now a metamorphosis worthy of Ovid has taken place in the largest campus library in the CUNY system, thanks to a three-year, $75 million renovation and expansion project approved by Governor Pataki and the State Legislature, and completed this fall. Outside, the new and reworked sections of the building have been brought into visual harmony with the 1937 original. Inside, the library combines the warmth of that earlier time with the cool efficiency of a thoroughly modern superstore of information technology. Overall, the completed structure is a handsome addition to a campus that was recently voted “most beautiful campus in America” by the Princeton Review.

“It is much more than a traditional academic library,” said Barbra Higginbotham, Brooklyn College’s chief librarian and executive director of its academic information technologies. “It’s a comprehensive and complex information center that includes the college archives, a new media center, and both academic and administrative computing.” The bare facts of the work are impressive and quickly told: 105,000 square feet added to the old buildings, for a total of 277,650 sq. ft.—more than six acres. Seating capacity has increased from 600 to more than 2,300. Space for nearly 1.7 million books has increased by 37 percent. Students can now access satellite digital connections, streaming video, centralized broadcast of digital materials, and video and audio connections at 500 new PC stations and in 22 group-study rooms. And a 145-seat auditorium, two multimedia classrooms, and a faculty training room are now available.

But these impressive figures do not convey a sense of the interior spaces and the countless visual amenities and thoughtful touches—the towering windows that overlook the lily pond, for instance, or the Tuscan warmth of the interior colors, the comfortable carrels and the welcoming group-study rooms.

A new reading room at the library
When Higginbotham came to campus as chief librarian in 1985, the library was already in poor condition and each subsequent year brought further deterioration. “It was a museum of every kind of floor tile we ever used at Brooklyn College,” Higginbotham said. “The stacks were about 90 percent filled; that rose over time to 100 percent. We kept removing seats for students to put in more shelving.” Hand-me-down shelving, no less. “As other CUNY campuses got new libraries, we got their old shelving—from John Jay College and the College of Staten Island. By the time we moved out, we were down to 600 seats—including seats in the auditorium. And we have 15,000 students here!”
There was no question that the library’s contents and staff were both of excellent quality. “The kids that did get into the building knew one thing,” architect Howe said. “The library had an extremely professional staff, totally dedicated.” There were architectural treasures as well, including superb murals created under the auspices of the U.S. Works Progress Administration and handsome original chandeliers.

But clutter tended to obscure the old building’s finer points, and the tattered conditions certainly discouraged students. “I never stayed there to study,” said Susan Goldberg, a senior in public communications who lives in Sheepshead Bay. “It was very cramped; everyone was in each other’s way. You could feel them breathing all around you.” Nadia Kruler, now in her third year of pre-med studies in psychology, agreed: “The only place to study was where everyone walked in and out. It felt more like a hallway than a library.” Howe’s architectural firm, Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, is one of the nation’s oldest. It was founded in 1874 by the eminent architect Henry Hobson Richardson, and quickly achieved a distinguished reputation for the design of public and university buildings—and libraries in particular. In 1888, two years after Richardson’s death, the firm received the commission to design Stanford University’s original campus in the firm’s famed “Richardsonian Romanesque” style. Other campuses with buildings by the firm include Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Vanderbilt, Wellesley, and the University of Chicago.

“We probably do more libraries than any other firm in the country,” Howe said. “Brooklyn College is one of the most exciting campuses I’ve worked on, with its cultural diversity and the beautiful campus buildings.”

Howe set himself the task of making a building so beautiful that no one would ever want to tear it down. He began, of course, by tearing down—or at least skinning—the 1959 addition, stripping off the orange-brick facing and the turquoise glass. This drastic step was not necessary to preserve the architectural unity of the campus’s central green, since the addition had been tucked mercifully out of sight behind the elegant original library. Anyone entering the campus by the main gate might miss it entirely.

But Howe noted that more than half the students entering campus came via the Hillel gate, which meant that the orange-brick addition was the first campus edifice they saw. It created a short gauntlet of ugliness before one reached the College’s grand central green. “So I was interested in creating a library that spoke to those coming in the back door,” Howe said. “If the library was going to be a signature building, it would have to be designed to have an impact on those students coming in the Hillel gate.”

The orange brick had to go and, of course, be replaced. In the best of all possible architectural worlds, the new bricks would exactly match the original ones from the 1930s. This turned out to be a real problem. “I learned a lot about bricks,” Higginbotham said, alluding to elaborate efforts to achieve a match.

“In the end, Sandy Howe said that, although the match would be good, it couldn’t be perfect. The bricks in the original building were coal-fired, and now bricks are oil- fired.” Coal-firing imparts a slight blue tinge, and this is missing from the new bricks.

Fortunately, the Library’s interior spaces did not require such elaborate efforts to match new construction to old. “Whereas the exterior had to be part of the family tartan,” Howe observed, “the interior had to have a contemporary feel, so that students would feel it belonged to them—that they could experience it as a product of their own time.”

Murals Celebrate Two Ancient Libraries in CUNY’s Largest One

Seen here is a detail from one of two eleven-feet-high murals created for more than 60 years ago for the Brooklyn College Library by Olindo Mario Ricci under the auspices of the WPA. The two panels, at right angles, show the Library of Augustus on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Vergil is reading his Aeneid from a scroll to the Emperor Augustus. The other mural, not shown, depicts the great Library at Alexandria.

Ricci, an immigrant from Campobasso, Italy, at the age of two, was thirty when the murals were dedicated in 1939. At that time he was already teaching at the College (the murals were completed in his studio in the Library’s clock tower). The muralist revealed in an interview that appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle in 1936 that his subjects had been chosen by Dr. William Boylan, Brooklyn College president and a classicist. Ricci added, “I have tried to provide the library interior with as many of the great men of the past as possible.” Among others depicted in the murals are Archimedes, Ptolemy, Aristophanes, and the architect Vitruvius. Small wonder that Brooklyn College has long been nationally recognized for its classics programs.

When Ricci was queried about the female student in the Alexandrian mural, he said he “thought” women were permitted in places of learning at the time. “But then”—the Brooklyn Eagle reports him adding philosophically—Brooklyn College “is a coeducational college and there ought to be some women in the murals.” Ricci’s plans for two other murals—featuring the library at the Sorbonne in Paris and the library at the University of Padua—were never realized.

The old building surprised Howe. His first idea was the go straight through the front door and to tear out and replace the main stack core. “I found I couldn’t,” he said. “It is an incredibly efficient space.” Tearing it out would have more than doubled the footprint of the new construction, so the stacks remained. They now anchor the whole.

Aesthetics, too, preserved parts of the old building. “The architects have preserved elements of the 1939 interior, including several reading rooms, beautiful original chandeliers, and the two enormous double-panel WPA canvases of the Augustan and Alexandrian libraries by the muralist Olindo Mario Ricci,” Higginbotham noted. “These rooms have been enhanced with lighting, air conditioning and technology in subtle ways in order to protect the neo-Georgian interior.”

The same care was expended on the colors of the interior. “We worked very closely with Barbra Higginbotham, who had a clear vision of both the psychological and esthetic effect she wanted,” Howe said. “We had a great taxi tour one day, five or six of us, riding around Brooklyn in the fall, looking at colors. “She had a painting in her office she was fond of, and we used that. We pulled photos from magazines of villas in Italy with beautiful fall colors near them. That’s how we got our color scheme: mustard mixed with some crimson and some greens.”

Howe knows that despite all the thought given to the color scheme, it may not endure. “As an architect, that’s the part I know will eventually pass from favor,” he said. “But the wood will remain as an accent. The wood is like the background in a painting; the color is the figure in the foreground.”

At the official inauguration of the Library, Brooklyn College President Christoph Kimmich said, “This is a defining moment in the history of the College. Our students now have a first-rate library and increased access to technology that will contribute to a more powerful educational experience.”

Brooklyn’s chief librarian is obviously proud of the new facility. Higginbotham happily notes that Ricci’s monumental murals are—of the countless WPA murals in the New York City area—the only ones with a library theme, and she just might be forgiven for thinking that the Brooklyn College Library is now an especially fitting home for representations of two of the most famous libraries of the ancient world.


Contents October 2002

$7.5M State Grant Launches Incubator Network

Students Reaping Benefits of Technology Fee

Georgian Elegance, 21st-Century Technology Joined in Reborn Brooklyn College Library

Launching LaGuardia Students Toward Animal Planet

From ’60s Activist Ranks to Executive Suite

Digging the City’s Past

Poet Laureate Collins Takes his Cue on Evil

A WWII Mobilization in The Tale of The Ticker

Subversive Feminist Julia De Burgos Celebrated at Hostos

Italian "Enemy Alien" Experience in WWWII

Museum at Queens College Spans Six Centuries of Art

Celebrating Scholarly “Pleasures of the Mind”

Valued Vets Toasted at the Central Office

CUNY Responds to Powell’s Call for More Minority Diplomats

LaGuardia and Lehman Honored for Freshman Year Programs

Former Brooklyn College Philosopher Turns Philanthropist