March 12, 2010

Library to undergo 21st-century makeover


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Renovation work expected to start this spring at the Portland Public Library will include a massive fa�ade made of glass and aluminum that features an outdoor video screen. This rendering shows what the project will look like when it's complete next year. Source: Scott Simons Architects

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Friday, February 13, 2009...The Portland Public Library, Congress Street at Monument Square.

Staff Writer

Terms such as ''curtain wall,'' ''solar chimney'' and ''urban screen'' aren't typically associated with libraries.

But they will become more familiar in Maine this spring, as the main branch of the Portland Public Library gets a glass-faced, audiovisual makeover aimed at attracting people to a building that is sometimes seen as sterile and uninviting.

Contractors are finalizing plans for enclosing the Monument Square facade and entrance in an expansive, metal-and-glass wall that will house a cafe, as well as library services. A 75-foot-tall glass tower near the entrance, dubbed a solar chimney, will warm air for the heating system on sunny days and trim fuel bills.

But the most striking feature may be the 30-foot-wide urban screen, which will broadcast video and audio feeds onto Monument Square. The outdoor video display will be the first of its kind in Maine, designers say, and is thought to be the first to be installed on any library in the country.

The screen could be used to promote cultural exhibits, such as the latest show at the Portland Museum of Art, and events in which a section of Congress Street could be closed to traffic, so crowds could gather to watch a presidential inaguration or New Year's celebration.

The facade work is part of a $7 million renovation to the library building, which opened in 1979. Improvements will include new restrooms, lighting and carpeting, as well as an expansion and upgrade to Rines Auditorium.

The children's library will be relocated and expanded, and a teen library will be created. An elevator will be installed at the main entrance.

These changes will make the main branch more welcoming to patrons and continue the tradition of a library as a place people go to get information.

In the 21st century, though, information has exploded outside the library walls, on computers, phones and other technology. So there's important symbolism in pulling the front of the library out to the sidewalk with a glass curtain and wiring it for sight and sound, according to Scott Simons of Scott Simons Architects, the Portland firm that designed the project.

''Information today is very much in the public realm, outside the building,'' he said.

This theme led designers to include the video screen. Outdoor screens are becoming popular around the world as a venue to share cultural content, art and information. Simons said he can envision presentations to mark events such as Martin Luther King Day.

No formal discussions have yet taken place, but Simons and library officials are proposing the idea of rerouting traffic on occasion for special public gatherings.

The changes would help make up for the current library setting's limitations.

The Portland library's main branch opened to mixed reviews 30 years ago. It replaced the handsome but obsolete Romanesque landmark at 619 Congress St. that had been the library's home since 1888, donated by iconic civic leader James Phinney Baxter.

Some trustees wanted the building to be where the Temple Street parking garage now stands. The plot of land at Elm and Congress streets, some said, was too narrow and long. But that site was chosen, and designers tried to relieve the ''bowling alley'' effect with a set-back entrance that framed a mini-plaza along Congress Street.

Striking a modern tone in a city known for 19th-century architecture, they created a building in keeping with International style, which favors blocky, minimalist lines. As it happened, that design trend was fading by the 1970s. The library remains Portland's best example of the period, Simons said, and for that reason is considered a historic building.

That designation may be notable, but it has done little to help attract patrons, according to Stephen Podgajny, the libary's executive director.

''Our architecture makes the building invisible,'' he said.

The dynamic facade, Podgajny said, will breathe new life into the stretch of Monument Square by the library. The public cafe and transparent wall will project warmth and activity. The urban screen will draw the eye with its changing content.

''It also will be an invitation to come in to the library,'' he said.

The library renovations have been planned for years, and just happen to be getting under way in a recession. Taxpayers are funding $4 million of the $7 million cost; the rest was raised from private donations.

The spending represents an investment in a building that has hosted 5 million visitors over the past 15 years, Podgajny said -- a period in which library services have been overrun by growing demand and a revolution in information technology, he said.

The first phase of the renovations is expected to begin by April.

The project is scheduled for completion in early 2010. Up to 60 workers will be involved, according to Ledgewood Construction of Portland, the project manager.

Erecting the curtain wall will have some tricky aspects, said Pete Pelletier, Legdewood's vice president for preconstruction services.

The granite panels that make up the existing facade are 4 inches thick.

Some may be need to be taken down to reveal the building's frame, to which structural steel trusses will be anchored to hang the aluminum and glass curtain wall.

''It's going to be a challenging project, doing this on Congress Street,'' said Pelletier, who worked on the building as an engineer in 1979.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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