Exterior of the Roslindale public library at dusk. The facade is a semicircular, curved wall and the roof features a white dome.

Leers Weinzapfel Associates Renovates a Space Age Library in Boston

Built in 1961, the Roslindale branch of the Boston Public Library just received a $11.7 million renovation by the Boston-based firm.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the nascent space age and ongoing jet age had architects drunk in love with producing buildings that suggested flight—consider Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal at New York’s (then Idlewild) John F. Kennedy International Airport, Oscar Niemeyer’s entire city of Brasilia, and even the cartoon show The Jetsons. Design of the time was all about curves and domes and swooping forms—all the better to capture the excitement of the airborne moment.

The trend made it as far as a branch library in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston. In 1961, architects Isidor Richmond and Carney Goldberg completed a semi-circular, one-story library branch capped with a jaunty dome that is elevated off the building’s roof with clerestory windows. In December, Boston architects Leers Weinzapfel Associates (LWA) completed an $11.7 million renovation of the structure, which over the past six decades has become a much-loved fixture in the neighborhood.

An image of an outdoor seating area at Boston Public Library's Roslindale branch
the interior of Boston Public LIbrary Roslindale branch from behind the librarian's desk.

“It’s the only Boston library branch that’s semicircular and the only one with a dome,” says Tom Chung, LWA principal in charge of the project. “We were told the outside was off limits; that’s how much the public really treasures the library.” It also works on an urban level, Chung continues, by hugging a curved street at the neighborhood’s epicenter, right across from its town green. The most substantial exterior intervention was the addition of an exterior patio, which follows the curve of the building.

The outside may have been sacrosanct, but the inside was another story. The branch had had no major renovation in sixty years and its interior layout seemed to fight, not work with, its unique curvilinear shape. “We let the original design drive our ideas,” comments Chung. For example, the architects, responsible for both exterior and interior design, arrayed the light fixtures and the shelves in a semicircular pattern and they put the information and circulation desk as an object at the very center of the space. “When you enter,”’ Chung says, “you get it right away, what is where. It’s easy to navigate.”

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interior image of a public library with large, curved windows and light pine shelves and seating area.

In plan, an orthogonal “bar” accommodates the library’s administrative offices. A considerable amount of the building’s roughly 16,000-square-feet is given over to a generously sized community room. “We moved a lot of back house space to the lower level to open up more of the main floor to public facing spaces,” says Alison Ford, major projects program manager for the Boston Public Library. “That allowed us to have a much larger community room.”

The building’s large curtain wall was completely replaced several years before this renovation, with the single pane glass being replaced with insulated glass. While the original pattern could not be replicated, in keeping with the aeronautical theme certain panes are coated with a blue film. At the interior apex of the dome is something of a mystery—what appears to be a plaster-cast sculpture shaped like bird’s wings. “Nobody knows who the artist was,” Chung says. “But we know it helps with the acoustics. It reduces the dome’s echo.”

Ford concurs with Chung’s assessment that the exterior was off limits to design tinkering: “The influence of the space age design of the building is loved by the community so we didn’t want any changes to take away from it.”

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