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Boston’s “most beautiful building” shatters library stereotypes

Designed by William Rawn Associates, Architects, with Ann Beha Architects, the new 2010 Harleston Parker Medal-winning Cambridge Public Library represents everything a library should be: not a mausoleum for printed books but a place brimming with activity and appealing to diverse people of all ages. “We were looking for a new paradigm for a public library: one that captured the very best qualities of a modern bookstore to foster browsing and spontaneously finding items of interest,” says Cambridge Library Director Susan Flannery.

Infused with natural light, the library’s main level now contains the most highly circulated pieces of the library’s collection, including new titles, periodicals and DVDs. Conversation, food and beverages are allowed everywhere on the ground floor, and there is space set aside for a cafe area (which has vending machines for the time being).

“Susan was the perfect client: visionary about what a public library could be but also very pragmatic,” says Clifford Gayley AIA, LEED AP, principal at William Rawn Associates. “She’s changed the image of the library from a place restricted by a long list of rules to a place of possibility and activity.”

Completed in 2009, the $69 million project is a true marriage of old and new—one in which both sides of the power couple would claim to be the “better half” if only they didn’t work so well together. A new 77,000-sf building, constructed by Consigli Construction and J.F. White Contracting, connects seamlessly to the 27,000-sf historic library, which was built in 1889 and designed by Van Brunt & Howe. From a formal composition standpoint, the buildings carry equal weight—acting as a study in contrasts for all that they are, united by their materials and colors. Meanwhile, a city park around the library was greatly expanded by moving a parking lot underground.

William Rawn Associates designed the new building to bring the park into the library and the library into the great outdoors. Visitors enter the building at grade with the park. A highly transparent, multistory double-skin glass curtainwall along its front blurs the boundaries between the interior and exterior. People passing through the park can spy the books and activity inside, while those hanging out in the library’s reading areas feel surrounded by the park’s mature trees.

Ann Beha Architects led the extensive restoration of the historic building, including the installation of a new slate roof, cleaning the polychrome granite and brownstone masonry, and razing a 1960s addition to reveal two historic facades. Indoors, the firm brought the dark-oak reading room back to its original Victorian paint colors and glory. Meanwhile, WPA-era murals depicting the 10 “divisions of knowledge” within the Dewey Decimal System draw the eye upward—now that they’ve been restored by the same conservationist who cleaned the John Singer Sargent murals at the MFA.

The design team went beyond partnering on finishes and furniture to jointly develop a creative program.

Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people for acclaimed publications such as Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, and The Boston Globe. Her website is