The Free Library of Philadelphia announced its intention to build a $100 million, internet-age addition to its Parkway flagship in the fall of 2003, just a month after the Eagles played their first game at Lincoln Financial Field. In the ensuing 15 years, Philadelphia raised the funding to open a new baseball stadium, two history museums near Independence Mall, several major parks, a new Barnes Foundation building, and two art museum satellites. Meanwhile, the library project went nowhere.
The library has cobbled together just $63 million for its construction effort, far short of what its Moshe Safdie-designed addition would cost today. Even as more of the world’s information migrated to our smartphones, and the digital revolution left thousands of poor Philadelphians unwired and isolated, the library has continued to make do with a main building that was last considered modern in 1927.
So, while we revel this week in the Eagles’ victory over the Patriots in the Super Bowl, we should humbly note that Boston — “a college town with a fishing pier,” as Tina Fey put it — was able to come up with $78 million from its capital budget to give its central library a glamorous, welcoming “Urban Room” equipped with the latest technology. For the record, the phrase urban room was what Safdie used when he outlined his plan for the Free Library addition in 2005.
As disappointing as fund-raising has been for the Free Library, the institution has not been idle. Once the library accepted that it would always be Philadelphia’s red-headed stepchild, its leadership began rethinking its expansion strategy to see what improvements it could make on the cheap. The design for the big addition facing Callowhill Street was shelved, and the library began strategically renovating individual collections, such as the popular music room. Safdie’s grand plan was sliced into smaller, manageable parts that could be sequenced as the money came in and that could function even if his big addition is never realized.
Last month, the library quietly reached a milestone. It has just finished dismantling its stacks, a massive, six-level, steel structure that held close to a million books and took up a large chunk of the Parkway building. With those shelves and catwalks gone, the volume of empty space resembles a bare-bones version of the soaring waiting area at 30th Street Station. But not for long.
After years of false starts, the removal of the stacks opens the way for the Free Library to reinvent itself for the 21st century. While dispensing books remains important, most librarians believe it is no longer their sole mission. Across the county, municipal libraries have replaced spaces assigned to bookshelves with community rooms, computer centers, and demonstration kitchens.
The Free Library will now do the same, inserting four new floors that will house a variety of social spaces, including a business center and a teen library. The project, which is costing $35 million, will provide many of the key services proposed in the 2003 plan, although on a more modest scale.
The goal is to get a broader cross-section of people in the front door and help the library remain relevant. Sandra Horrocks, the Free Library’s spokeswoman, sees today’s libraries as “informal learning centers” and “connectors” — connecting citizens to reliable information, connecting students to research material, connecting job-seekers to jobs, connecting everyone to the written word and new ideas.
The stacks were at the back of the Parkway building, and most of the cleared space is below the level of Wood Street. The new reading rooms are concentrated on the middle two floors, which happily align with the Parkway building’s main lobby and basement auditorium. The architects are using a rooftop skylight to filter natural light into the space.
From the main lobby, visitors will be able to take the grand staircase down to a new, double-height business center, outfitted with banks of computers and glass-enclosed work rooms. A more general common room will be located on the mezzanine and furnished with soft seating that allows people to spread out.
Since the library wants to get more young people in the door, it plans a teen area at the lobby level. As a lure, it’s being equipped with a range of maker spaces, including a recording studio, screening room, and green screen, as well as plush furniture. As part of the design, Safdie’s office has repurposed the old steel stacks as room dividers.
Those horrified by the displacement of so many books from the library’s main building can take solace in knowing they are not far away. The collection has been relocated to a storage facility at the Pennovation campus in Grays Ferry. Deliveries are made twice daily, and the library promises next-day service for anyone who wants one of the volumes. The sad truth is that most of those million books were rarely requested.
The bottom-most floor will house efficient new compact book shelves, which can hold about 250,000 books. The plan is to keep the frequently requested books in the building, especially current novels and nonfiction, Horrocks says. Unlike the old stacks, this new area will be open to the public.
Unfortunately, the top floor will have to remain unfinished in this phase because of the funding shortfall.
That the library has accomplished so much with so little money is impressive, but the current project still lacks some key elements that have made other library renovations successful. The most important is transparency. At Boston’s central library, William Rawn Associates was able to transform a fortress-like 1970s addition into a spectacular light-filled room by facing the main Boylston Street facade with a glass wall. The immense ground-floor room is outfitted like a high-end bookstore and includes a full-service cafe, as well as a studio for a local public radio station. It’s such a seductive space that it is now filled from morning to night with people who never had ventured into a library before. The library has seen a 20 percent increase in visitors since the renovation was finished in 2016, president David Leonard told me.
Because the Free Library can’t afford the extension to Callowhill, it is stuck with its beautiful but hermetic, neoclassical Vine Street facade. Even though it should see an increase in visitors with the new social spaces, the library has decided there won’t be enough traffic to support a cafe.
These days, a social space without food and drink isn’t very social. Perhaps that will change if the library succeeds in raising the $85 million it needs for the addition. The project has been greatly scaled back and will now include a modest, one-story structure on Callowhill and underground auditorium. Given how this stretch of Callowhill has come alive with apartments and restaurants, maybe it’s time to consider partnership with a developer. Building an apartment building over the auditorium could help underwrite the project.
That’s just one solution. Like Boston, Philadelphia could decide that its Free Library is crucial to its identity as a city — as important having a winning football team — and come up with the money to finally make the addition a reality.