To Expand, Michigan Library May Raze Breuer Building
By Tovah Pentelovitch | From Preservation | Apr. 2, 2007
The fate of the Grosse Pointe Central Library building is in limbo until the end of the month, when the Detroit suburb's library board will select an architect who will decide whether to rejuvenate or scrap the modern building.
Built in 1953 by Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), the district-owned Central Library is too small for the library's collection. But increasing the size of the 18,500-square-foot building, which is not protected by any state or local laws, may destroy Breuer's modernist design.
"The shelves are so stuffed with books that every time we get a new book, we have to get rid of another," says Laura Bartell, president of the Central Library board.
The library must have between 40,000 and 45,000 square feet to meet the basic needs of the affluent and heavy book-using community of Grosse Pointe Farms, Bartell says.
The two-story, red-brick building fails to meet the needs of the community on many levels, she says: There is no program area, no room for computers, no audiovisual area, no story-time room for children. Furthermore, without an elevator, the second floor is not handicapped-accessible.
The library board wants to expand the square footage of the branch with a tight budget and a site just large enough to fulfill the municipality's setback zoning requirements but too small to fulfill the zoning regulations requiring one parking spot per 100 square feet of usable space.
"We are willing to do whatever will work for the library system," Bartell says.
This could very well mean tearing down Breuer's structure and rebuilding, a possibility that some residents are opposed to. Breuer, a father of modernism, is known for his design of the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, which was built after the Central Library.
In late January, Brian Buchalski, a designer from Ann Arbor, Mich., caught wind of the situation and made a call-to-arms, asking any architect or designer who cared about the preservation of modernist architecture to encourage the library board to consider all other options. His efforts evolved into a group of concerned citizens calling themselves the Modern Architecture Protection Agency, which in early February organized a charette: a brainstorming workshop.
On Feb. 26, Buchalski and his colleagues presented 14 design ideas at the Grosse Pointe Farms public board meeting. The ideas, all of which centered around preserving the Breuer's building, ranged from the practical to the impossible.
"Most of the design ideas unfortunately did not fit on our property," Bartell says. "But all of the ideas were very interesting, and all of them are being displayed in the library."
Instead, the Central Library board released a Request For Qualifications in search of an architect; all architects submitted their designs last week. On Apr. 30 the Central Library board will hold a special meeting to select an architect.
"We [the library board] have never made a decision that we all hate the building and we want to tear it down. That is not the driving force here," Bartell says. "We are driven by the library needs of the community."
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