Keep Central Library, Atlanta residents say, but maybe not for books

When it rains, Susan Roe likes to watch the streaks of water on the concrete edifice that is Atlanta’s Central Library.

The rain comes down the side of the building at an angle, she said, and turns the concrete light and dark. A downtown resident, Roe comes to the library on a regular basis. With broken elevators and a leaky roof, the building has been neglected for too long, she said. But she loves it.

“It makes me happy,” she said. “It’s so beautiful, like a piece of artwork.”

The iconic library building is the focus of discussion in Fulton, as county leaders are set to decide its future later this year. The 1980 building, the last designed by famed architect Marcel Breuer, is considered historic. But it is also in a state of disrepair, and too large for the modern-day needs of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System.

Commissioners have a choice: they can spend up to $85 million to renovate it. Or they can sell it, and build a smaller central library for about $40 million. A new downtown library would be about 20 percent of the size of the 265,000-square-foot main branch. A recent meeting to hear public opinions on what should happen to the library drew about 80 residents.

The library, in the boxy, brutalist style of architecture, has plenty of champions. When it first opened, critics praised the pre-stressed concrete exterior and the monochromatic insides. Additionally, getting Breuer — who designed the Washington office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Whitney Museum in New York — had been a coup. He died the next year.

The building is not “classically beautiful,” said Melody Harclerode, the past president of the Atlanta chapter of American Institute of Architects. But it is significant.

Still, there are those who think a smaller building might be both more functional and more attractive.

Mary Lu Mitchell, who was chairman of the Library Board of Trustees when the Central Library was dedicated, said she was used to a “warmer, friendlier building” when she was young. If the downtown library continues to be the main branch, she said, the concrete needs to be livened up with bright colors or more comfortable furniture.

“I’m open to what’s best,” Mitchell said. “It might work better to have a library in a smaller building downtown.”

A new central branch could have state-of-the-art technology and be more vibrant than the existing building, according to the library system. But it could also be further from MARTA and acquiring downtown land could be difficult.

The county has no plans to tear the building down, but if it sells, it cannot control what new owners might do.

Fulton County residents in 2008 approved $275 million in bonds to renovate existing libraries and build new branches. The original proposal included a new, larger Central Library, built partly with private funding. But that new funding didn’t come, and the need for a larger library has been questioned.

Circulation at Central Library has been down, said the new library director, Gabriel Morley. He sees the library’s function as different in the future — smaller spaces, perhaps bookmobiles, where people can pick up requested items or use computers, in lieu of gigantic buildings where people browse the shelves.

“You can’t build it and hope they’ll come,” he said. “The building doesn’t define us at all. That’s just our location.”

Tom Budlong, the former head librarian at Central Library, said he is a big fan of the building but has mixed feelings about the concept of a central library. There’s no longer as much of a need for a monumental library structure. What’s needed, he said, is a strong downtown branch.

His wife, Debbie Skopczynski, thinks there is still a role for a main library branch where archives are kept. But the scale of this Central Library is just too big.

Georgia State or the Savannah College of Art and Design might be interested in the building, said Jamilica Burke, a current member of the library’s board of trustees. That’s not enough, though, for some residents.

“It would be a tragedy if Atlanta lost this building as a public space,” said Robin Lackey, an architect who lives in Midtown. “If you stand back and feel the space, it’s a really incredible space to be in… It’s like a big art gallery. It’s a gallery for books.”

While Lackey acknowledged that the building can feel dated rather than historic, she said re-opening some upstairs courtyards and making it more welcoming to the public could go a long way. Her husband Kevin Lackey, also an architect, said Atlanta’s habit of treating its buildings as disposable has made this one even more important as a piece of history.

Perhaps, residents said, an art gallery, co-working space or senior center could fill some of the unused floors.

“There are a lot of different options,” Morley said.

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