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New kid on the block

The BPL gets a hip, modern makeover

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
New kid on the block
A modern, open entryway opens up the BPL. (Photo: Photo: Chris Lovett)

The Boston Public Library just got a major makeover, and like the female lead in a ’90s romantic comedy, it’s now one of the cool kids. The architecture team at William Rawn Associates, who also designed the East Boston and Mattapan branches, took the almost 50-year-old Johnson Building and remade it for a 21st century audience.

Author: Photo: Chris LovettA bust of novelist Henry James on the mezzanine level of BPL.

The previously closed off façade now opens up to the street, and features a café, an onsite WGBH studio, and hi-tech search tools. Most importantly, the design encourages people of all walks of life to utilize the space. Architect Clifford Gayley says, “The words ‘Free to All,’ which are carved into the original building, are the core of what a library is. It’s meant to be a part of the city, a part of life.”

Aesthetically, the new Johnson wing is a contemporary re-interpretation of the classic design of its neighboring McKim building. The William Rawn team drew inspiration for the Johnson color scheme from the famous Sargent murals in the old wing of the library.

“Color was a very important way to create visual energy,” says Gayley.

The rich primary colors, blue, orange, green, and red to name a few, give the space an engaging and modern vibe. Warmth was a key word in the design process. Boylston Hall, the entry space of the Johnson building, features a rich limestone imported from Hungary and an intricate, scalloped wood ceiling to bring a comfortable, natural element to the interior space.

Author: Photo: Chris LovettA gargoyle keeping watch from its perch on the mezzanine level of BPL.

The new building isn’t just inspired by art; it features many pieces of the BPL’s extensive collection. Notably, the fiction series features several busts of famous authors such as Mark Twain, Maya Angelou and Edgar Allan Poe. Overlooking fiction from the mezzanine sits a copper griffin that once resided on the roof of the McKim building — another tie between old and new. The fiction section itself has been reorganized for better reader access. Now it’s divided by genre, like a bookstore, and then alphabetically by last name of author. This allows visitors to more easily browse subjects they’re interested in. Still aren’t sure what to read? The literary awards wall shows the names of Nobel Prize and Pulitzer-winning authors, a kind of in-house “trending” page.

Boylston Hall now features floor-to-ceiling windows, flooding the space with natural light and inviting visitors in from the street. On the street itself, natural landscaping draws visitors in and a free-standing table complete with phone-charging station gives bibliophiles an outdoor space in which to relax. Boylston Hall boasts a glass elevator and a clear, open pathway from Johnson to McKim. This ease-of-access between the two buildings is a huge upgrade from the dark maze of stairs and hallways it previously took to get from one section to another.

In a genius effort to connect with the millennial demographic, a “Shelfie” station has been installed by the central information desk. Here you can take a selfie on a large LCD screen, which will paint your photo with lines from your choice of several classic books. Your library card lets you save, send or share the photo. The young, hip crowd is further wooed by the in-house Catered Affair coffee bar (yes, you can now eat and drink in non-carpeted library spaces) and the remote WGBH broadcast studio, which will begin filming segments at the library in August.

For historic buildings like the BPL, it’s a constant battle to keep things both relevant and reverent to a storied past. Every inch of the one million square-foot Johnson building has fresh lipstick and a slinky new dress. It achieves that illusive balance between old and new. Gayley says, “We’re letting Boylston Hall be of its time. It’s crisp, contemporary, and free to all.”