Changing Skyline: Illuminating the rare manuscripts at Penn

Henry Charles Lea's 19th-century science library was left untouched during the renovation of the rare book room. (Ed Hille/Staff Photographer)

Step off the elevator into the University of Pennsylvania's hallowed rare-book room at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, and you immediately recognize something is different. Where's the wood?

Van Pelt is notorious for being one of Philadelphia's harsher examples of '60s-era Brutalist architecture, with walls made of bare concrete block and prison-size windows, and yet its rare-book room was always decorated as though it were part of some English manor house. Deeply carved, 16th-century oak paneling greeted visitors in the entryway. Dim and a little dusty, the mood was a cross between a Borgesian labyrinth and Dumbledore's attic. You were never sure what might lurk around the dark corners.

So when the elevator slides open now, it is a surprise to confront a shimmering glass screen, etched like crystal. Bright sunshine beams around the space. To the right, a glassed-in porch beckons. Arranged with elegant modern seating, it could be a swank condo lobby, except that it is filled with students sprawled on the sofas with their laptops.

Forget that stuffy collegiate style of yore. This is what a rare-book library looks like circa 2014.

The rooms housing Penn's extensive collection of rare books, manuscripts, and historic objects has been rebuilt by architects in the Dallas office of Gensler. After $16 million worth of work, the lighter, brighter rare-books library reopened in April and was renamed the Kislak Center, after the project's main donor, Jay I. Kislak, a Florida real estate developer who collects rare books.

It may sound odd to invest all that money to spruce up a space devoted to musty old tomes at a moment when books are rapidly being converted to pixels downloadable from anywhere. But college libraries are having a second life as social spaces, where people gather to read and discuss books. Penn officials report the number of classes that meet to look at rare books has been climbing steadily.

Maybe because books have been so dematerialized by the Web, students are fascinated by them as objects, says vice provost H. Carton Rogers, who oversees Penn's libraries. Rare books are works of art, often written in sinuous calligraphic script and illuminated with hand-painted images. Among the treasures Penn owns are Shakespeare's first folios and Audubon's Birds of America. (A version of the edition just sold for $11 million in London.) Being able to hold and touch originals "means something entirely different than looking at an Oxford paperback," Rogers believes.

Gensler architects Kyle Jeffery and Ross Conway began the project by reconfiguring the library's sixth-floor space. Gone are the dark, unmarked corridors. The designers anchored the floor with a large, elegant glass box that does triple duty as a lecture room, events space, and study room.

You can now take in the entire library in a glance because most rooms have transparent walls, something unexpected in a place devoted to conserving centuries-old texts. Librarians say the books will not be harmed because the main reading room, where scholars work, is on the north side, which receives the most gentle light.

The library also added seminar rooms and a catering kitchen for special events, as well as a gallery for exhibits and a climate-controlled storage room on the fifth floor. But the real draw is the windows. Because the rare-book library is on Van Pelt's top floor, it offers panoramic views of College Green and the rest of the campus. That's something you don't get when you look out the slit windows on the lower floors.

Van Pelt was designed in 1962 by Harbeson Hough Livingston & Larson, successor to the firm founded by the great Philadelphia architect and Penn professor Paul Philippe Cret, but its bare concrete walls and stingy windows are the last thing you'd expect at a private, Ivy League school. The story, probably apocryphal, Rogers says, is that the university librarian at the time was a medievalist who wanted "archers' windows."

Over time, Rogers has been trying to soften those harsh spaces with new furnishings and modern workspaces. Just as companies like Comcast and GlaxoSmithKline are altering their offices to encourage employees to work in teams, universities are creating spaces where students can do projects collaboratively.

In 2012, the library opened an off-site study hall by colonizing the vacant space under the seats at Franklin Field. Though the space, designed by New York's Joel Sanders, has huge windows and overlooks a park, it does not have a single book. Some sections don't even have chairs; students sprawl on the floor instead, against bolsters and pillows. When Interior Design magazine announced finalists for its 2013 awards this winter, Kislak and the study hall were among the top 10 finalists. The study hall won top prize.

Not all the wooden touchstones of Kislak's past were removed during the renovation. The 16th-century panels, which were near the elevators, were reinstalled in the room housing its special Shakespeare collection, and Henry Charles Lea's 19th-century history library, which was transferred intact from his home at 20th and Walnut, remains untouched. So does David Rittenhouse's amazing 18th-century orrery, a collection of gears that mimics the movement of the solar system.

Despite Van Pelt's architecture, I've always had a soft spot for the place because it is an open-stack library, perfect for serendipitous research. It is open to any Philadelphian with a photo ID. For digital nomads, it makes a nice alternative to a cafe.

After spending time in the sun-drenched Kislak reading area, you might even forget about those medieval archers' windows.