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The first thing you notice about the renovation of the second floor of the Johnson Building at the Boston Public Library’s central Copley Square facility—which officially opens with a ribbon-cutting starring Boston Mayor Marty Walsh Saturday morning—is the color.
“What was here before this renovation was what was there in 1972. The carpet was the same carpet,” says Michael Colford, director of library services, the number two job in the Boston Public Library system. “We had brown panels. We had gray granite. … There was never any color.”
Consider that: The blocky, brawny library addition designed by star New York architect Philip Johnson at the corner of Boylston and Exeter streets hadn’t been updated since it opened four decades ago. And “There was never any color.” Over years of wear and tear, the Johnson Building came to have a dreary, alienating warehouse feel—emphasized by the contrast with the library’s original 1895 building next door, the ornate National Landmark beaux-arts temple designed by architect Charles Follen McKim.
The renewed second floor—the first phase of an ongoing renovation of the Johnson Building—radiates warm reds, purples, greens. It arrives as a surprise and a wonder. The redesign by the Boston architectural firm, William Rawn Associates, and being built by Consigli Construction, headquartered in Milford, offers a new Children’s Library, teen room, adult nonfiction shelves and lots of cozy places to sit. It’s sleek, colorful, mod, with lots of sunlight streaming in. The driving philosophy is to make the giant library more like a lounge or café, a cozy comfortable place. Coffee and snacks are welcome.
“We’re trying to create a space where people want to hang out and be in. Librarians are more mobile,” Colford says. “Through the whole Internet age, people now more than ever want to come together and be a community.”
And, notes library spokesperson Rosemary Lavery, “People are amazed that it’s all free.”
Colford points to another major improvement: “The restrooms are new. We’re going to have them on every floor. We used to only have them on the lower level.”
The Copley Square rejuvenation is part of renovations and new construction going on across the city’s library system: a new Mattapan Branch opened in February 2009, a renovated Brighton Branch reopened in December 2010, and a new East Boston Branch in November 2013. More branch projects are underway.
Work at the Copley Square library began in fall 2013. The renovations now opening cost $18 million, according to officials. “This is just phase one. The bulk of the project is still happening,” Colford says. A second phase—renovations to the first floor, the mezzanine and the exterior (including opening up windows to the streets and adding street trees)—is expected to be completed around the middle of 2016, Colford says. The total cost for the central library renovation is projected at $75.5 million.