Public libraries have always played an important civic role, serving both as communal gathering spaces and as vehicles for providing free access to information for all. That dual service, and the responsibility that comes with it, has never been more important as society fully transitions to the digital age. Libraries around the United States need to continue to be that place where anyone can go to check out the latest book, use reference materials, and take his or her kids to story hour. But today’s libraries also have to provide computer stations that have Internet access and all types of media in digital formats.
The village of Stapleton on the south shore of the New York City borough of Staten Island is one community that understands the importance of having a library as a public amenity—and what it means when that resource is in jeopardy.
The library, a branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL) system, overlooks Tappen Park, the village’s town square. The original building, a one-room structure, was designed by Carrère & Hastings in 1907, the same architectural duo of John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings responsible for the NYPL’s Beaux-Arts main branch on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan. Back on Staten Island, a school and an athletic field were later built behind the library. Like many communities, Stapleton has seen its share of hard times, succumbing to the population shifts and economic challenges that affected most American urban metropolitan areas during the 20th century. The school became run down and then was demolished, with the athletic field turning into a vacant lot. The library, once again, was left on its own.
Fast-forward to 2009. As part of New York City’s Department of Design + Construction’s Design + Construction Excellence program, which pairs architects with public building projects, local firm Andrew Berman Architect was tasked with the renovation and expansion of the Stapleton branch library. “We got to look at this project as both a library restoration and as a civic statement,” says principal Andrew Berman.
When Berman and his team first visited the site they found a heavily used space—by both children and adults—with everything packed into the one 1,800-square-foot room. The building also suffered from what Berman refers to as “clumsy modernization efforts,” but luckily those interventions were only cosmetic and the bones of the original structure and architectural details were still intact. One of the principal features of Carrère & Hastings classical architectural vocabulary were the 71/2-foot-tall oak bookcases lining the walls. It was this detail and material selection, with its quality and craftsmanship, that inspired Berman in his design of the new addition.
The new 12,000-square-foot building is a luminous rectangular box that flows easily from the existing structure and is flooded with natural light thanks to the front curtainwall and double-height windows on the rear elevation. Like one big study hall, the main reading room—whose ceiling slopes up from 18 feet 5 inches high nearest to the existing building to 25 feet 63/4 inches high farthest away, mimicking the grade of the site—is lined with new 71/2-foot-tall bookshelves (a nod to the library’s originals) and the space is broken down into different work areas. The main circulation desk, which faces the new entry, serves as the visual hinge between the two buildings.
During meetings with the client, the NYPL insisted that spaces be clearly zoned for security purposes: the children, teen, and adult areas all had to be separate. The children’s room is now the sole occupant of the original Carrère & Hastings building, and the teen and adult areas are in the new wing. Long tables, some with computer terminals and some without, provide more-formal workspaces, while lounges with oversized bean bag chairs create informal spots for reading, listening to music, and browsing. The center bay houses staff offices and a multipurpose community room.
The addition and its architectural features—the Douglas fir ceiling and beams, polished concrete floor, skylights, and expanse of glazing—all take their cues from the existing building, but in Berman’s hands, these elements take on a contemporary feel that creates a warm, inviting, and intimate place despite its scale. And while Berman wanted library visitors and staff to have the sense that the building was predominantly day-lit, electric lighting was a necessity, and so he called on Stephen Bernstein, principal of Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design (CBBLD), who first worked with Berman in 2002–03 on the AIA New York’s Center for Architecture.
CBBLD’s lighting scheme captures the essence of the architecture both in its form and in its material sensibility. CBBLD challenged themselves to see if they could find a single lamp type that could meet the needs of the entire project. “We went around the building looking at what needed to be lit and where we could put the light,” Bernstein says. The CBBLD team decided on a 4-foot T5 linear fluorescent. (Since the project started in 2009, LED technology wasn’t yet at the forefront of luminaire offerings as it is today.) In the main reading room and community room, the decision translates into a 28W 3000K T5 linear fluorescent direct/indirect pendant that provides 25 footcandles. These luminaires are suspended from aircraft cable and align with the horizontal mullions of the windows and the vertical wood columns of the front curtainwall. The rectangular form of the fixtures complements the shape of the Douglas fir ceiling beams and the fixture’s datum of light becomes another architectural feature. “There isn’t much reliance on over-decoration,” Bernstein says. “The decoration is the palette of materials that were being used. Our lighting had to respond to that, and in its own way had to be an architectural element within the space.”
At the library stacks, which employ a stainless-steel shelving system, bracket arm-mounted fixtures are used with 3000K 21W and 28W T5 linear fluorescents. Here, the goal is to brightly highlight the books.
At the entry, the lighting team departed from the linear fluorescent lamp typology, opting instead for a 3000K LED illuminated handrail, 3000K 4-inch recessed downlights at the canopy, and 6-inch recessed 32W CFL wallwashers in the vestibule. A decorative globe-shaped pendant was selected by the architect for the children’s room and is meant to act as a design departure from the linear aesthetic of the new building.
Everyone is thrilled with the new library. This year it was one of five recipients of the second annual NYC Neighborhood Library Awards supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the Charles H. Revson Foundation. It has even drawn the attention of library professionals who have visited from other towns and states.“We wanted this to be a great public library, not an architectural monument,” Berman says. “The comments from the community are the best I could hope for.”
Project: Stapleton Library, Staten Island, New York • Client: The New York Public Library, New York • Architect: Andrew Berman Architect, New York • Structural Engineer: Gilsanz Murray Steficek, New York • M/E/P Engineer: IP Group Consulting Engineers, New York • Lighting Designer: Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design, New York • Landscape Architect: Wallace Roberts & Todd, New York • Geotechnical Consultant: Langan Engineering & Environmental Services, New York office • Project Size: 12,000 square feet • Project and Lighting Costs: Withheld (per client’s request) • Code Compliance: Complies with local New York City codes • Watts per Square Foot: 0.97