Updated: May 6, 2020
The Albuquerque Main Public Library was designated a city landmark in January 2020. This post first appeared in the Modern Albuquerque LLC September 2019 newsletter.
The Main Library at 501 Copper holds a special place in my heart. It's my first library, where my grandmother took me during babysitting duty. I can still recall sitting spellbound in the story pit, losing myself in the stacks. I never forgot my library and I compare all others to it. Maybe libraries stay with us. Architect George Clayton Pearl toted a photo of his beloved University of Texas library building with him to war, eager to get back. Perhaps he understood the power of such an institution; its beauty and purpose. Over the years, I've been struck by how little the Main Public Library has changed. Computers replaced microfilm, and the card catalog is long-retired, but the building - and the feeling of being within it - is much the same.
When the city began to seek a replacement to the library at Central and Edith in 1970, one of the fundamental concerns was the new building be able to serve the needs not just of current Albuquerque residents, but future ones. It would also need to accommodate the shifting dynamics of library services, technology, and programming. Media formats and the very methods of handling information were in flux. The job of designing a new library that could meet today's needs as well as tomorrow's fell to Pearl, lead designer at Stevens, Mallory, Pearl, & Campbell (today, SMPC Architects). Pearl was paired with Don Reichmann and Alan Clark, representing the staff of the library system, who came in with big ideas and big problems.
Among Pearl's papers now archived at the Center for Southwest Research are his notes for an undated presentation in which he reflects on his job title: designer. He laments that "every time I want to refer to what I do I can't very well say 'solving functional problems which have an aesthetic component and which result in the construction of a piece of the built environment, usually big enough for a human being to walk into. So until I find a better word, I'm stuck with design." Pearl clearly saw his role as a problem-solver. And he was well-suited for taking on this one. The architect and his "architecturally sophisticated" clients agreed on a core principle of the design: the new library must be flexible to accommodate changes in information technology that no one could yet foresee. In a 1971 article, Pearl described his vision to the City Commission as "uncluttered." He insisted that the library he imagined was, "not similar to any other library in the country," designed to have more flexibility than any other he and his clients had visited. Don Reichmann, then the Director of Library Services with whom Pearl worked during this design process, praised Pearl's concept, saying it demonstrated the preference of the library of the future. Fixed spaces containing necessary infrastructure, such as stairwells and elevator shafts, would be moved to the edges of the building to allow for uninterrupted central space. This distinction between fixed and flexible space resolved a problem an older building could not have reconciled, and yet, even the new buildings they'd visited had also failed to arrive at this solution. Among the public, there was some contention that the library's proposed look wasn't regional. In their eyes, that meant the design didn't match the Pueblo-Revival style of the former Main Library. Pearl wanted to move away from archeological influences, expressing "a general feeling that regional architecture was no longer socially relevant." In the pre-planning stage, the clients had requested a New Mexican building, but using no false adobe. While the resulting design has been described as Brutalist for its scale and massing, architect Edie Cherry, FAIA, disagrees. She believes the structure is better categorized as regional modernism. As evidence, she references preliminary renderings of the facade that depict the first-level as mostly glass. In an oral history interview with Cecilia Portal, Pearl talks about the librarians' unrealized desire for a glass first-level to attract people inside. This would have met several of his clients' criteria, making it a building that both invites people to come in and one that people would want to come to see. Pearl once reflected that the library was a rare case where the clients had a valid reason for wanting the building's form to attract favorable public attention.
Cherry's assertion aligns with notes in Pearl's files, that "sometimes it is only appropriate to achieve a regional character through massing, color, texture, and so forth, as in our Main Public Library..." Cherry and Pearl's former colleague, Robert Campbell, AIA, shared with us that the library design incorporated New Mexican materials. The wood paneling that lines the walls is not walnut, but stained cottonwood. Campbell explained that the cottonwood panels were prototyped at the firm's former office on Amherst (and were left behind in their move last year). Glenn Fellows, FAIA, principal emeritus at SMPC Architects, added that cottonwood was difficult to work with. Campbell also shared that Pearl designed the building down to the doorknobs. Even the carved wood handles in the building are his designs.
Ground was broken on the library in January 1973. The George Rutherford Construction Company (now Summit) was awarded the contract for construction; not the first nor last time the company would bring one of SMPC's buildings to life. Upon entering the library, most eyes are drawn upwards. Edie Cherry described the striking modern layout above as a 'universal' ceiling: a configurable grid of 3' x 3' square modules each containing lighting, power, and air supply/return. The module design also allows for vertical partitions to connect to them, permitting walls to be reconfigured. This is most evident on the second level of the library, in the division of administrative and public space. The column spacing was done in conjunction with the ceiling concept, which also references the standard dimensions of book stacks. Full flexibility at a scale relevant to the library is achieved in the interior space.
A New Mexico Architecture article describes the completed library as having the "provisions for adding an additional floor," something Campbell did not recall and is not detailed in the plans. However, in preliminary renderings, the calculations for library growth that make a case for a future addition are presented and a fourth-level drawn in dotted lines. The clients initially estimated that the 43,750 square-foot addition would be required by the year 2000. No such addition has been necessary, though librarians pointed us to possible evidence of that thinking. Upon exiting the stairs or elevator at the second level, one can observe how
another stairway could have been opened in the space next to the existing one. Fellows acknowledges that adding another level would have been a challenge, regardless of the library's structural integrity, and with the historic designation of the structure, it is unlikely to ever receive such an addition. The second level is actually the third floor, as the children's area, auditorium, and community space are located on what's referred to as the lower-level. Robert Campbell explained that the lower-level was distinguished from a basement by exterior courtyards ("pocket parks"), partially to get around sprinkler requirements that would have been enforced if it was fully below ground.
In the early 2000s, the architectural firm Cherry/See (now Cherry/See/Reames), was hired to renovate the library. Much of this remodel was completed to bring the building up to contemporary code standards. Among these minor updates were public restrooms added to the second-level and the addition of an exterior stairwell exit on the lower-level. The most visible update to the library was the addition of the glass enclosure at the main entrance. Cherry explained that originally, the library had two entrances and their placement wasn't clear. Her update would close the second entrance and call attention to the main one at the corner of Copper and 5th. Using glass in an aluminum frame, the addition serves to guide library users, funneling them towards the front doors. Inside the glass entrance, the design fitted space for a coffee shop. Cherry approached these renovations with the "respect that one would have for a building on the National Register of Historic Places" and for Pearl's original choices. To ensure she maintained that respect, she presented her plans to SMPC to garner their approval before her clients'. The updates were completed in 2006, with the coffee shop opening in 2010.
Current and former library staff remain enthusiastic about the library's design and function and it remains largely uncluttered, yet to outgrow its original square footage. It is expansive and thoughtful of both user and employee needs. The building has been added to the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties and nominated to the National Historic Register. When opened in 1975, the library's interior was furnished with popular, modernist Herman Miller furniture. Some of this remains and was classified as a single contributing object in the building's nomination. About the odd, angular bump-out pictured at the top of the article: Cherry says that Pearl joked, "that's where the grand piano goes."
Our thanks to Dean Smith, Joshua Fox, Robert Campbell, Glenn Fellows, and Edie Cherry for their gracious assistance (and patience) with this article.