Think Again

Behind the transformation of the Providence Public Library

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Oh, what a little light can do. If you ever walked down Empire Street at night, you understand. New lamps now shine from the walls of the Providence Public Library, brightening the pavement. New bulbs, embedded in the sidewalk, now glow underfoot. Despite the scaffolding and partitions, the library looks fresher, newer. Junk has been cleared away from the high windows; ancient plants no longer decay in the transom. Slowly, the building is returning to life.

For a year and a half, the PPL has been walled off, a mysterious renovation project in the heart of Downcity. You could still visit and borrow books, but all you’d see was a single room, a ring of shelves, and tables crowded with patrons. Here and there, passersby have caught hints of progress. But when it reopens at the end of March, the state’s largest library will burst from its chrysalis, and visitors will witness the full metamorphosis within.

“The library was basically built to be a giant book repository in 1953,” says Jack Martin, executive director of PPL. “It desperately needed a renovation. It got to a point where we said, ‘We have to do this. What else are we going to do? The building is unusable.’”

Costing about $26 million, the project is far more than a makeover. The “front” of the building, a beige monolith etched in art-deco patterns, looks roughly the same as before, but the inner layers are thoroughly gutted. Workers have busily rehabilitated 83,000 square feet from the ground up. Cramped little offices have been ripped open; reconfigured rooms are spacious and bright.  The cavernous entrance will soon become a grand atrium, with smooth walls, a graceful staircase, and a second-floor circulation desk. Landings and windows will afford views of the Providence skyline that were, until recently, unimaginable.

Soon, the library will become a destination – not just for borrowing books, but for socializing, entertainment, refreshment, hands-on education, and just spending idle hours downtown. At last, PPL promises to reach its full potential, as a busy nexus of civic life.

A Fraught History

The Providence Public Library, recently rebranded “PPL,” is a major landmark in Rhode Island, but it’s also a long-suffering one, the victim of strange decisions and general neglect since the middle of the last century.

The original library is a magisterial building of arched windows and stone balustrades, which still stands proudly between Washington and Fountain Streets. The project was constructed in stages, funded largely by antiquarian John Nicholas Brown I. Within, the Grand Hall and Ship Room look frozen in time; the antique pillars and sconces make this space a popular location for weddings.

But times changed, as did aesthetic tastes. In 1953, the library added a new wing – really, a whole new building. The modernist architecture contrasted sharply with its Renaissance-style predecessor.

“It was actually built out an additional 20 feet,” says Martin, “to block any views of the 1900 building from downtown Providence, because the [original architecture] was not considered to be in vogue in 1953. This was supposed to be the library’s bold, new, modern statement. Even when you went downstairs, most of the doors were blocked off to get to the old building. There was an urge to forget.”

The bad feng shui only worsened from there. The children’s collection moved to one room, then another. In the 1980s, the two buildings were finally connected through a makeshift passageway. Drop ceilings and fluorescent lights were ambivalently installed. New mezzanines blocked natural vistas. Solo bathrooms became infamous rendezvous points. The auditorium – with seats for nearly 300 people – was forgotten by the general public. Since its founding, the outer walls of the new library had never once been washed.

Adding to its woes was a messy divorce, between the Providence Public Library and the city’s library system, in 2009. To summarize a long and bureaucratic story, PPL became an autonomous entity, leaving a wake of controversy and hurt feelings. Martin and his staff have worked hard to repair these relationships, and he is proud of the new and mended partnerships of the past decade. But at the time, the library was alone, at odds with the city, with an ugly, outdated facility. The strange layout became a metaphor for the institution as a whole.

“It’s always been a labyrinth,” Martin concludes. “Everyone used to complain how lost they would get. Everybody would ask, ‘Where are the books?’”

 

Think Bigger

It all started with renovations to the first building, back in 2012, when the Grand Hall and Ship Room were returned to their original luster. Although the old design appears intact, it’s received plenty of work over the years: Stone circles in the floor indicate where spiral staircases once stood. Windows have been ruined and reinstalled. As the Edwardian style turned fashionable again, the library became a destination for banquets and events. But soon, administrators faced a new challenge: stricter fire codes.

“Fire protection means tearing down walls, installing sprinklers, installing alarms, everything,” says Martin. When he joined PPL as executive director six years ago, Martin inherited a $3.5 million bill for the new infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the board had hoped to expand its educational offerings. PPL offers a variety of classes, and the library has a strong partnership with Roger Williams University; local students can take courses in web design and data navigation for college credit. Enrollment is competitive, and PPL had a need for classrooms that matched the curricula. Gradually, the solution started to look much bigger.

“Instead of installing sprinklers in a building that we already didn’t like,” recalls Martin, “we could just reimagine the library to better fit the new strategic plan. It could be a beautiful, light-filled, open-source, living university for the public in downtown Providence.”

The full renovation has been five years in the making, depending on how you look at it. Over the course of its THINK AGAIN capital campaign, PPL has forged many partnerships and gathered an army of supporters. PPL received $9.2 from the state, a $1 million leadership gift from Rosalynd Sinclair, $4.2 in equity from New Market Tax Credits – a federal program – $200,000 from RISCA to renovate the auditorium, and $400,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, among countless other donations and gifts. A full $1,250,000 came from the Champlin Foundation, which had also helped with previous renovations.

The plans were drafted by designLAB, a Boston-based firm, but additional help came from architecture students at RWU, which incorporated the library’s design into its master’s curriculum.

PPL houses more than a million books, and the brunt of these had to be stored remotely – in a facility in Connecticut – during the heaviest construction. Yet the shelving units will remain, unchanged, since most bookcases are fused to the library’s superstructure. The stacks may have been hard for patrons to find, but they’re as intractable as the building’s foundation.

 

A New Home

There’s no telling how many times Martin has toured the construction site, showing visitors what the new library will look like. During our visit, Martin shows off fresh sheetrock, new carpet, and clear glass windows. Soon, visitors can return books to an automated book depository and watch their volumes ride down a conveyor belt. A whole corner of the library will be dedicated to a cafe or restaurant; at press time, PPL was still courting potential vendors. Martin shows off the spacious “teen room,” a commonplace at other libraries that has never before existed at PPL.

Such massive, public, heated spaces are rare in downtown Providence, and patrons will have to see the library in person to understand its full grandeur. Martin moves from one room to another, holding up printed renderings, to indicate what these dusty walls and sheets of plastic will soon look like. There is an unspoken feeling – that the makeover won’t just restore a bygone glory, but create something altogether new.

As Martin puts it: “We’re trying to accomplish a lot.”