Second Edition: New Life for Holyoke Public Library

In Massachusetts, a 1902 public library prepares for the future.

As a patron walked up the Holyoke Public Library's impressive steps, a chunk of its limestone cornice thunked down in front of him. He carried the fallen architectural detail to the circulation desk like a book he was returning. After this near-miss in 2006, library director María G. Pagán learned that the custodians had been collecting cornice pieces from the lawn for years.

"They never told me," Pagán says.

By then, the building was clearly in dire straits. The library's local-history collection and archive had been removed from the damp basement and whisked to a nearby community college for safekeeping, and the children's section, also on the lower level, had been moved upstairs to meet ADA regulations. Plaster slabs fell from the basement walls, water pooled on its floor, and mold bloomed. With this part of the library in such poor condition, the building's usable area shrank by half, leaving scant room for computers or space for patrons to even sit down.

"If we wanted to add books, we had to get rid of books," Pagán says. "We were in crisis."

The 1902 Neoclassical temple to reading cried out for preservation, but there was no way it could become a modern library without more space, Pagán says. The question was how to balance those two competing demands.

The answer: Marry the new with the old. A sparkly, glass-sheathed addition hugs the back of the original building. At 22,257 square feet, the expansion nearly doubles the library's usable space. The children's department has a sunny room to itself, while the young-adult section went from 10 square feet to approximately 1,000. Patrons can sink into high-backed, upholstered chairs. The 40,515-square-foot building is now accessible as well as sustainable, with features such as low-flow water fixtures and sensors that turn off lights in unoccupied rooms.

These changes represent an alternative approach to preservation — the idea of restoring a historic structure and adding on with architecture that's complementary but different. In the case of the Holyoke library, the old-meets-new strategy saved a beloved place while ensuring its continued relevance and usefulness. “We couldn't and didn't want to replicate the old building,” Pagán says. “We wanted something that would speak to now and the future.”

When the Holyoke Public Library was first constructed, the stately building set in a block-sized park was physical proof of this small city’s largesse. These were fat times in Holyoke, tucked along a bend of the rushing Connecticut River in south-central Massachusetts. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the busy mill city made more paper than anywhere else in the world.

The era also saw an increasing number of libraries spring up around the country, says Abigail Van Slyck, an art history professor at Connecticut College who has researched turn-of-the-century library architecture. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie alone funded around 1,680 in the United States between 1896 and 1923.

Holyoke's T-shaped building embodied this welcoming philosophy, says Van Slyck. There was a children's section with its own entrance. Two large front reading rooms with tall windows were devoted to open bookshelves, and a projecting wing held glass-floored book stacks. A skylight set the soaring atrium ablaze with light. Visitors climbed the outside granite steps, walked past a mighty row of Ionic columns, and then stepped into the light, so to speak.

“The idea was that readers climbed to enlightenment,” Van Slyck says.

The architects of these libraries designed them so they could be expanded, Van Slyck adds, but solely to accommodate more books. Today, as much as it might pain librarians, books are not the only draw — if even the main one. Once, a library measured its success by the number of books checked out. Now what matters is the number of visitors, or gate count. Those visitors expect new computers, big tables with electrical outlets, and comfortable furniture, not the hardback torture devices of yesteryear. Today's libraries double as community centers where people can learn to use a computer, look for a job, enroll their kids in an art class, and maybe read a book. Holyoke's library struggled just to be a library.

María G. Pagán is an energetic woman with a dark braid that trails down her back. She grew up in a small mountain town in Puerto Rico, and since 1985 she has worked at the Holyoke Public Library. From the time she became director here in 1996, she's been planning and fundraising for the expansion. She and the library board got their first big break in 2010, when the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners awarded the project nearly $4.4 million. The grant required that the building be expanded, not merely restored. To secure the rest of the funding, Pagán and the board turned to the city of Holyoke.

Though the city dragged its feet, it eventually approved a $5.5 million bond. The library board applied for state historic tax credits, but was rejected, in part, because of the extent of the renovation. The balance of the funding came from money raised by the library board and from the New Markets Tax Credit, a federal program intended to spur development in needy neighborhoods.

When architect Jim Alexander of Boston's Finegold Alexander + Associates saw the library in 2010, his first impression was, “What a gem.” Then he noticed the netting hung above the entrance to protect patrons from flying cornice pieces, and the surrounding blocks of abandoned, boarded-up brick row houses.

“I thought, ‘What could we do to make it sparkle?’ because it was so sad,” Alexander says. “It could be a very bright spot for the whole city.”

The library's neighborhood is one of the most downtrodden in Holyoke; city treasurer Jon Lumbra says solicitation is a common crime on its streets. The area needed a boost.

The lean and soft-spoken Alexander says it quickly became clear that a strict restoration would be impossible. The long ramp that would be required to make the entrance handicapped-accessible could obscure the grandness of the facade. The stack wing was a fire hazard because its glass floors, though lovely, were not attached to the walls. Building on the parkland surrounding the library was strictly prohibited, which left little room to expand.

Finegold Alexander has a long list of preservation projects to its credit, including the Ellis Island National Monument, the Vermont State House, and Boston's original City Hall. For the library, the design team proposed two radical changes: demolish the stack wing and essentially flip the building's floor plan. They would move the main entrance to the addition and close the original entrance, while still keeping it intact.

The Holyoke Historical Commission fought to keep the building as it was, according to co-chair Olivia Mausel. In response, Finegold Alexander modified the design to preserve a significant portion of the stack wing. The commission also fretted over the atrium murals that depict Holyoke's founding fathers, starting with Elizur Holyoke of nearby Springfield, who scouted the region in the mid-1600s. Five of the murals were located right where the new addition would cut into the old building. Alexander agreed that the paintings should be saved, but they had to be moved.

“One of the things we like to say is that an old building has a voice, and we have to listen to it,” Alexander says. “You look for things you have to keep, like the murals.”

Pagán stands in the addition's top floor, next to the once-dodgy cornice. The new portion envelops the original building's exterior wall, making moments like this possible. She rubs her hand across the cornice's carved detail.

“Before, you could only see this from a distance from the ground,” she says. “Now you can take in all its beauty.”

Strolling through the library, you get the feeling that as you go from the old building to the new, you're walking from inside to outside. On the first floor, you step through the original building's windows, which have been transformed into doorways, into the new periodical room. The structures fit together so intricately that there is no precise boundary separating old from new. A broad staircase with glass balusters weaves between the two. The transparent staircase, which greets you as you walk through the front door, also signals how times have changed.

“We want people to feel pretty good in the library,” says Terry Plum, president of the Holyoke Public Library Corporation Board of Directors and an assistant dean at Simmons College's Graduate School of Library and Information Science. “There's no need to overwhelm people with their insignificance when they walk in. People hang out on the stairs talking to each other, and that's what we want.”

The building’s atrium has become even more inspiring than it was before renovation. It glows again. The central skylight, which had been tiled over for decades, was uncovered, as were those in the history room and the new computer room.

Fontaine Bros., the general contractors, used a soft touch on the old building. They gave the exterior one light power wash, and the interior woodwork was cleaned but not refinished. The five murals that had to be moved from the atrium received a cleaning and were mounted in the computer room. Like the cornice, the paintings can now be examined up close.

On the addition, the architects continued the sandy hues of the original limestone and brick walls and carried through the existing proportions. But it has its own distinct character. It's airy, intimate, and sunny as a greenhouse. Here, Alexander and his team, like library architects a century ago, thought of the future. Rooms serve multiple purposes, and shelves and furniture can be moved. These nods to flexibility ensure that the building will be able to adapt as its functions evolve in unpredictable ways.

“You really don’t know what’s coming for libraries,” says Plum.

On an early February day, a young woman curls up in a chair to read in the Spanish-language collection. Two teenage boys huddle over homework in a small study room. Patrons use the two new self-checkout machines amid the hushed bustle.

Big hopes are pinned on this relatively small library. Pagán plans to have improved summer reading programs, computer training, and after-school activities. In a disadvantaged community like Holyoke, she says, a library can change lives. Her eyes well up as she talks about what she could accomplish now that the building has been stabilized and expanded.

For Lumbra, the library renovation is bigger than itself.

“I've been using the analogy that the library is the pebble in the pond, and things are rippling out,” he says. Abandoned buildings nearby are slated for renovation. Benches and Wi-Fi will be added to the park this summer. The visitors attracted by these changes will only continue to improve the neighborhood, where from a certain vantage point, the Holyoke Public Library looks much as it did in 1902. It watches over the city as if nothing has changed, when in fact everything has.

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