Atlanta’s downtown library on list of endangered sites

By Maria Saporta

Tear down the Atlanta-Fulton Central Library? Not so fast, says the World Monuments Fund.
The fund announced today its list of international sites on its 2010 Watch — places that are in some kind of danger of being destroyed.

And the one entry from Atlanta is the Atlanta-Fulton Central Library, an eight-story, modern-style building that was designed by architect Marcel Breuer. The library, which was completed in 1980, 11 years after it was originally commissioned.

In its report, the fund said:

“In November 2008, legislation was passed to direct public funds to the construction of a more contemporary library space, a decision that would likely see the destruction of Breuer’s final work. The potential plight of this building echoes that of many modern structures, particularly those of the Brutalist period, as preservationists and planners seek to ensure their functionality and relevance in the changing urban context.”

The report, which called Atlanta a “sprawling urban metropolis,” also described the downtown library as a “cube-shaped, neutral-toned cement façade.” The building embodies the “Brutalist tendencies of Bauhaus design, eschewing excessive ornmentation while promoting asymmetrical designs that offer plentiful and unique interior space.”

Outside the library, the report said the “weighty composion of Richard Hunt’s 1991 stainless steel sculpture, The Wisdom Bridge, reflects many of the architectural characteristics Breuer employed in the library.”

The fund also said that “inside the steel-framed modernist monolith, enormous staircases wind their way up the central corridor, expanding the open floor plan and flooding the library with natural light from above.”

The World Monuments Fund annually releases its list of endangered significant sites in the hope that they will be preserved.

My only question to them is where were they when the city of Atlanta and Fulton County decided to demolish the grand Carnegie Library in the mid-1970s, one of many mistakes our city made in the name of progress.

Just to elaborate, the ideal solution would have been to keep our Carnegie Library intact and to have asked Marcel Breuer to build a modern addition (an approach taken by Boston’s public library).

Because we tore down the Carnegie Library to construct the new building, a temporary library was established at 10 Park Place overlooking Woodruff Park. But in that transition, our library lost a great portion of its collection.

So we lost twice — a historical gem and many of its magnificent contents.

A personal note: when I was 16, I worked in the Fine Arts section of the Carnegie Library where I cleaned the music albums and filed them back in their sections for $1.60 an hour. My best friend, Francie (see Maria’s Metro), also worked at the library putting books back on the shelves.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

1 reply
  1. BPJ says:

    Agreed that the Carnegie Library should have been kept, and the Breuer building erected nearby; that’s what a first-rate city would have done.

    The question now is, what do we do with one of the few significant Atlanta buildings from the second half of the 20th century? In my experience, it actually serves fairly well as a library (I use it), and I have some doubts whether a new central library will be built, for budget reasons.

    However, if a new central library is built – fronting Centennial Olympic Park, for instance? – here is one idea for the existing building. The best known Breuer building is the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. I wonder whether the existing library could be converted to museum space, at much lower cost than building anew. The building is designed, after all, to contain and protect a large number of objects mostly made of paper. I’m not an architect, but I suggest that a team of architects examine the building for its suitability as a museum. Doubtless it would need new lighting and climate control, but it still might be inexpensive compared to new construction.

    Who would occupy it? The expanding High Museum would be a possibility, as its collection grows. Or how about as a permanent home for the best art collection in Atlanta? That would be the Elton John collection of photography. This would require some enlightened philanthropy, for someone to buy and renovate the building.

    Anyway, let’s think boldly, in the best Atlanta tradition.Report

    Reply

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