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Worth checking out newly renovated Homewood library

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

From the lobby's restored leaded-glass skylight to the comfy new seats in the auditorium, the $3.6 million renovation of the Homewood library is simply superb.

But don't take my word for it. "I was like, 'Wow!' I used to not like coming to the library because it was all boring," said 10-year-old Brandi Thomas of Homewood. "Now it looks like a house."

Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
The centerpiece of the renovated Homewood library, at 7101 Hamilton Ave., is the African-American collection, which surrounds an almond-shaped table just beyond the circle of chairs. Since the 1970s, the space had been occupied by a mezzanine.
Click photo for larger image.

Indeed. A very big house, thoughtfully organized, beautifully furnished and whimsically illuminated, a house with a high regard for books and the people who read them. This is a library worth going out of one's way for.

Lest we heap too much praise on Car-negie Library of Pittsburgh, it must be pointed out that the Homewood library may be the exception and not the rule. The historic Hazelwood branch, despite vociferous protest at a community meeting in September, will close in March and move to rented quarters on the second floor of a new building on Second Avenue. And while the library officially says no decisions have been made about the future of the city's other historic branch library buildings in Lawrenceville, West End and Mount Washington, it appears they may be doomed as libraries.

But for the moment, let's dwell on the good news of Pfaffmann and Associates' Homewood makeover, which strikes just the right balance between preservation and innovation.

Gone is the original mammoth circulation desk, which architects Rob Pfaffmann and Christine Brill, who served as project manager, had dubbed "the battleship." Its oak was recycled into a new, smaller checkout desk. The old stack room behind it now is the welcoming heart of the library, and home to its extensive African-American collection, which surrounds an almond-shaped table framed in African zebra wood and sprouting a bronze light fixture inspired by the baobab tree and designed by Pfaffmann.

Banished, too, was the 1970s mezzanine that once dominated this space. Its removal means that for the first time in decades, the tall Gothic arches of Ralph Adams Cram's Holy Rosary Church next door once again can be seen through the library's generously scaled, multi-paned windows. The layering feels like a sliver of Canterbury, helped along, no doubt, by the gray weather.

Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
During the renovation, architect Rob Pfaffmann had this built-in bench moved from a second-floor staff room to the new teen area on the first floor. It's one of several nooks where readers can curl up with a good book.
Click photo for larger image.

In her memoir, "An American Childhood," Annie Dillard laments that the Homewood library's windows were "set ten feet from the floor, so that no human being could ever see anything from them."

But those supernaturally high windows, common to all the prototypical Pittsburgh libraries, allow tall bookshelves to line the walls and flood the rooms with natural light, a green feature before green was groovy.

Designed by the Pittsburgh firm Alden & Harlow, the Homewood library became the city's largest branch library when it opened in 1910. It also was the one that deviated from the classical mode Alden & Harlow had established for Pittsburgh's other branch libraries. Frank Alden had died in 1908, and the design, with its battlements (now newly rebuilt) and ornate Gothic entrance, has been attributed (by architectural historian Margaret Henderson Floyd) to Erie native Howard K. Jones, then working for the firm.

The Homewood library was not part of Andrew Carnegie's original library grant to Pittsburgh; it came about through the efforts of the Homewood Board of Trade. Carnegie, likely encouraged by his brother Thomas' ties to the affluent neighborhood, purchased the land himself and gave the architects a hefty budget -- $150,000, compared to the typical Carnegie library grant of $50,000 or less.

The second floor (one more than the other original branches had) housed a caretaker's apartment -- now meeting rooms and a staff kitchen -- and a ballroom for social events. The latter, long out of use, is the bright new home of the library's Homework Club, which Brandi and about 15 other students attend after school two days a week. One of their mentors is Hakeem Everett of Homewood, who helps his son, nephew and other children.

Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Lawrenceville sculptor Daniel Sadler created the figurative lamps that occupy the top shelves of the children's room's built-in bookcases.
Click photo for larger image.

"There was no Homework Club when I was growing up here. You had to rough it," Everett said. "I remember this library back in the day. There was no activity and it lacked a lot of books. When Ms. Broadus came, things changed."

Librarian Joyce Broadus, who also grew up in Homewood, has worked there since 1989. "She was a key player [in the redesign] and very supportive of all efforts to preserve and reuse the historic fabric," Pfaffmann said. Broadus insisted the library's original oak phone booth be retained, not recycled; it's been moved to the auditorium, where it will become a ticket booth.

The children's room keeps the best of the old, including Marcella Comes' fanciful literary murals. Completed in 1934 and darkened by time, they have regained their original brightness (and whiteness; fortunately, their lack of ethnic diversity was not seen as an impediment to their retention). Comes (pronounced Co-mez), a professional artist, was the daughter of the prolific Pittsburgh Catholic church architect John T. Comes.

As in the adult reading room, the original round and rectangular oak tables were retained; their refinished tops hold handsome new lights. Of special delight are the illuminated sculptures that top the bookshelves -- frog, cat, house, ladybug, rocket ship, UFO and more. They are the work of Lawrenceville artist Daniel Sadler.

New curved bookcases on wheels with built-in benches form a story circle that can expand and contract. Mock Woodworking Co. of Zanesville, Ohio, crafted these as well as the modern display shelves in the central area, designed to showcase books and newspapers in a more eye-catching, "retail" format.

Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
The story circle in the children's room is framed by new bookcases on wheels.
Click photo for larger image.

Improving customer service is one of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh director Herb Elish's goals, and he'll be pleased to know Brandi Thomas approves. The Customer Service desk, where librarians are available to answer questions, is one of her favorite things about the rejuvenated library.

The periodicals collection has been upgraded, too. In comfortable chairs, library patrons can sink their teeth into The New York Times, N.Y. Post, or any of 47 other periodicals, from American Girl to U.S. News and World Report. There is a special emphasis on black periodicals, with at least a dozen relating to African-American experience.


Here are the dates for all of the Carnegie Library renovations currently scheduled:
Feb. 7: Brookline branch re-opens; Squirrel Hill branch closes.
March: Hazelwood branch closes and reopens in Plaza Sophia at the corner of Second Avenue and Flowers Street.
July (anticipated): Main library renovation complete (library is open during renovation).
December: Squirrel Hill branch re-opens.


Let's not forget the new mechanical systems, and the air conditioning that was upgraded to include the entire building, and the elevator that has been tucked discreetly into the right side of the front entrance.

"You always go back and say, 'How would the architect who designed this building solve this problem?'" Pfaffmann said recently in the library's lobby. He was talking about the reconfiguring of space to create a more open plan, but he might as well have been speaking about any of the decisions, large and small, made on this project, which remains true to the spirit of the 1910 building and brilliantly refreshes it.

Post-Gazette architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.

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