Library's design looks to past, future
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001
CLEARWATER -- It's an old saying that you can't judge a book by its cover.
Even so, an awful lot of time and attention has gone into the look of Clearwater's new main library.
The design of the 90,000-square-foot building mixes modern and traditional touches with a distinctive, wavy roof line, preliminary drawings show.
Another striking feature would give library patrons a terrific view when they look up from their books. The west side of the building would include a four-story wall of windows offering a vista of Clearwater Harbor and the barrier islands strung along the city's coast.
Before Friday, the design of the $20.2-million project -- heralded as a future landmark of downtown Clearwater -- had been seen only by city commissioners and a handful of other city officials in private meetings. The design was made public Friday in response to a request from the St. Petersburg Times.
The initial reaction from commissioners has been positive, interim City Manager Bill Horne said, although some were "underwhelmed" by the clean, straightforward drawings.
For his part, Horne questioned how the western wall of glass would withstand a hurricane. (The building's architects say the windows could be reinforced.) Still, Horne was upbeat about the look.
"I think that it's important for the community to understand what the design represents," Horne said. "It opens up the view of the bluff and the Intracoastal (Waterway) for everyone on one side. On the east side, the architecture is in harmony with historic buildings downtown."
Library director John Szabo loves the design. He thinks the dramatic presence of the new building isn't conveyed adequately by the drawings released Friday.
An artist's watercolor renderings and a model of the facility, which will arrive in Clearwater this week, should give the public a much better idea, Szabo said.
"It's an exciting design, one our community can be proud of," Szabo said. "And it's just wonderful to be talking about design, floor plans, bricks and mortar after such a long period of discussion about when to build it, where to build it and how much money we had."
The current main library is a hodgepodge of confusing additions, built around the original 1916 structure. Half of the building isn't open to the public because it cannot support bookshelves or is not accessible to handicapped patrons.
The new main library will nearly double the size of the current facility, include cutting-edge computer technology and help draw more people downtown as an anchor attraction for the area's redevelopment, city officials say.
To dream up the facility's look, the city hired the St. Petersburg firm of Harvard Jolly Clees & Toppe, which signed on Robert A.M. Stern Architects of New York City as the design architect on the project. The total budget for design is $1.5-million.
City officials have bragged mightily about Stern's involvement.
Stern is dean of Yale University's School of Architecture. He has written several books about architecture, and his work has been the subject of nine books. He serves on the board of directors of Walt Disney Co. in addition to leading his 130-person firm.
Harvard Jolly's portfolio includes local landmarks such as The Pier in St. Petersburg, about three dozen libraries and scores of other public buildings ranging from recreation centers to the Salvador Dali Museum.
Architect John Toppe of Harvard Jolly is pleased with the proposed design.
"(Stern) avoided the easy temptation to just emulate a single building in downtown Clearwater like the post office," Toppe said. "He's captured the flavor of the past, but he's really looking to the future with a very contemporary building."
The exterior of the new library was inspired by two buildings in particular, Calvary Baptist Church's historic sanctuary and the central downtown post office, Toppe said.
Stern's firm envisions the new library having a stone exterior that would be similar to the pale pink coquina walls of the post office. (Coquina is a soft limestone made of broken shells and coral cemented together.) The roof could be lined with green Spanish tiles, similar to the historic mint-colored dome of Calvary Baptist.
"We're trying to build on the traditions of Clearwater in terms of the materials and the elements, but then also be forward looking," said Alex Lamis, an architect who is part of the design team at Stern's firm.
A wave in the building's roof gives a nautical feeling to the structure, Szabo suggested. And an overhang from the roof would shade an outdoor terrace where library patrons would be able to read or relax with a view of Coachman Park and Clearwater Harbor.
Szabo also provided floor plans of the library's interior, although the design there is unfinished. The plans give a sense of what it would be like to step inside the main entrance on the southeast corner.
As you walk in, a circulation desk would be at your right. Current periodicals, hot items such as bestsellers and the library's audio and video collections would be at your left.
Down a walkway in front of you, near the tall wall of windows overlooking the city's bluff, would be a coffee shop with tables in an atrium. Then there would be a grand staircase.
Also on the first floor, with a separate entrance off Osceola, would be a 3,000-square-foot community meeting room that could hold 300 people comfortably, Toppe said.
After you walked up the grand staircase (or took the elevator) to the second floor, you would arrive at a whimsical area: the 10,400 square foot children's section, much bigger than the 2,900 square feet now devoted to kids. The area's imaginative decor could include things like Jack's beanstalk growing through the room.
"The idea is to create themed environments for the kids, which let them stimulate their imagination and encourage them to curl up on the floor and read a book," Toppe said.
Balconies would overlook the ground floor, creating an airy feeling, Toppe said. There would also be a room for computer classes and offices for library staffers.
The library's main collection would be on the third floor, with multiple tables and chairs for people who want to read a book or study.
Nearby would be a 1,800-square-foot section with resources for young adults, as well as three small rooms where study groups could meet.
As you walk up the grand staircase to the fourth floor, you would see Caladesi Island in the distance. At the top of the staircase would be the library's local history collection.
Another staircase would take you to the "penthouse," an open-air, shaded terrace with a panoramic view. The area -- sort of a rooftop garden -- could be a venue for receptions and special events for up to 200 people, Toppe said, if the city can afford it.
"We're still debating if we can do that and meet the budget," Toppe said. "That's the one element of the building to me that is a bonus."
The next step in the process is to raise some money so the city can afford the project.
The Greater Clearwater Public Library Foundation is hosting a private reception Tuesday at Belleair Country Club to woo potential lead donors, Szabo said. The city needs $5-million in private donations to complete the library as designed.
Stern will bring better artistic renderings of the library to town Tuesday for the reception. Nancy Hart, who is married to Commissioner Ed Hart and is the daughter of drugstore chain founder Jack Eckerd, is helping host the event.
"People are coming to meet Stern and see the plan," Mrs. Hart said. "A lot of people see it as the first major step for downtown. . . . Libraries pull communities together. They're like motherhood and apple pie. Every person I talk to about it is very excited."
A news conference has been scheduled Wednesday morning with the intention of announcing "a major private gift," according to a draft news release by the library foundation.
After all the week's hoopla, the public will be invited to workshops to discuss the proposed design of the library soon, Szabo said. After that, the design will be completed.
If the project stays on schedule, part of the library's collection would be moved -- possibly to the Harborview Center -- and the demolition of the existing building would begin in February 2002. The new building would open in September 2003.
Szabo can't wait.
"My vision is that this is a place that citizens will want to bring their out-of-town relatives to see," he said.
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