By MELODY SIMMONS
The Daily Record of Baltimore
BALTIMORE (AP) — Officials at the Enoch Pratt Free Library are launching a $96 million restoration to the Central Branch this spring that will include upgrades to bring the historic building into the wireless age as books and readers go digital.
The redevelopment of the 260,000-square-foot Baltimore landmark known as “Maryland’s Library” will take place over a four-year period beginning in 2014. The project was set into motion this month after $1.2 million in state funds was approved by the General Assembly for planning and design, said Carla D. Hayden, CEO of the Pratt Library.
“There will be a respect for this building,” Hayden said. “It will be modernized, but you will still have this wonderful feeling of permanency and beauty.”
Additional state funds for the work will be added by legislators over the next four years. Renovations will include new bathrooms, elevators, and air conditioning and heating units, as well as plumbing and electrical systems.
The Pratt’s regal brass work, marble and elaborate woodwork in the building’s Central Hall will also be restored and the signature front picture windows along Cathedral Street will either be replaced or restored. The goldfish pond in the children’s room will even get new fish.
Technological upgrades include docking ports placed into the Pratt’s stately wood tables for laptops and smart phones and self-checkout stations in every department, Hayden said. Librarians will have access to handheld, wireless tablets to assist in lending materials to patrons on the spot.
“This building has stood the test of time,” Hayden said recently, as plans for the restoration were set into motion with local architects Ayers Saint Gross and the New York-based Beyer Blinder Belle, which specializes in historic preservation projects such as restorations at Grand Central Station in New York City.
The Central Branch opened at Cathedral and Franklin Streets in 1933 after the Pratt Library had outgrown its former location nearby on Mulberry Street.
Businessman and philanthropist Enoch Pratt donated the land to the city for the free library to be built there in 1882. He also gave an endowment of endowment of $1,058,333 for the project, which included establishment of four branches.
Today, the building holds 1.5 million books and the library is hailed as one of the oldest in the U.S. with 21 branches in its citywide system.
“It was known as a `cathedral of learning,”‘ Hayden said. “The design of the building was a department store model” with a central hall surrounded by smaller departments.
“It was built with three floors of stacks to hold up the building,” Hayden said, leafing through well-preserved books with blueprints and pencil sketches on onion paper that detailed the library’s custom-made chairs, tables and even a wooden trash can. “Now, we’re looking at making it a green building. We’re looking at sustainability and hope to get a LEED Silver certificate.”
Near Hayden’s second-floor office, inside a thick vault, many of the Pratt Library’s historic treasures will remain safely tucked away during the restoration, including two locks of black hair once on the heads of Edgar Allan Poe and his wife, Virginia, framed in gold; a certificate signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863; and one of the early copies of “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, dedicated to his buddy, H.L. Mencken.
The renovations will allow the creation of a lounge for the library’s staff of 270 on the fourth floor. A lounge was originally planned, but never built because there was no money to do so, Hayden said.
Recent upgrades to wireless in the Central Branch have allowed patrons to sit anywhere and access the Internet. Laptops can be checked out for use inside the building and Hayden believes that one day soon, smartphones will be used as library research tools.
“It’s an exciting time,” Hayden said. “What this building project will allow us to do is to make sure there will be another 80 years. We have to think about things we’ll use in the future here.”
Architect Sandra Vicchio, formerly with Ayers Saint Gross and now owner of her own firm, Sandra Vicchio and Associates in Baltimore, has been working on the renovation plan for years.
“You don’t build buildings like that anymore,” Vicchio said. “When it was built, it was a cutting edge, modern library. It was forward thinking, so this new plan will have the same things like a larger space dedicated to young adults so it can capitalize on that history.”
Vicchio said the task ahead will be challenging and exciting.
“It’s fairly straightforward. We are securing the (building’s) envelope and replacing the systems so that the environment will be important to protect those valuable assets,” she said. “What you’ll see in the end is a beautiful historic building with 21st century technology and activities.”
Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore, http://www.mddailyrecord.com
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)