Lansing architect Todd Gute is a busy man, but he found time to go to an adult coloring session at the Capital Area District Libraries’ downtown Lansing branch last fall.
“My kids are too old and too cool to color with me anymore,” he explained.
Also, he needed the practice. His next job was to color in the whole library.
Gute is the project architect for the $670,000 makeover of the library’s first and second floors that will be unveiled in a series of events this month.
The renovation simplifies and opens up the interior, adds more places to sit and generally spiffs up the 1964 “Mad Men”-era interior of the glittering white rectangle at 401 S. Capitol Ave.
The makeover is a big step in the library’s 21st-century pivot from a maze of bookshelves to a flexible hub of information and social activity.
The project was paid for by CADL reserve funds and donations from Friends of the Libraries organizations.
The most dramatic part of the transformation will greet visitors right away.
Inside the front doors, a large, curved desk big enough for an airline check-in will suck patrons deeper into the library.
Simplification and de-cluttering are key goals of the project. Circulation and information services will both be found at the big new front desk, instead of separate stations. The old glass partition between the foyer and main floor, where people tended to clump like leaves blowing in from the street, is gone."Some people didn’t go beyond the glass,” Gute said. “They saw it as a barrier.”
The hold shelves are closer to the doors, so nearby state workers and other people in a hurry can pick them up and check out fast.
Head librarian Kathy Johnson said the new configuration also will free up a “floating” staffer to approach patrons and ask if they need help.
She finds that more than half the time, when she approaches patrons, they are relieved to get help.
“We need to offer help instead of waiting at the desk,” Johnson said. “Quite a few people don’t want to touch a computer, or they just got a device and haven’t got a clue what to do with it.”
New furniture and carpet are integral to the makeover.
Some of the old furniture was original to the building; other pieces were hand-me-downs from Lansing Community College and CADL’s Delta Township branch when those libraries got new furniture.
There are 45 new plugs for personal electronic devices and many more places to sit, solo or in groups. The renovations add 36 new seats to the first and second floors. The furniture doesn’t look industrial, but it’s durable enough to be hosed off every night. The carpet comes in easy-to-replace squares, in case of spills or other damage, and there are plenty of spares ready to go.
The fiction collection has been expanded on the first floor, with CDs and DVDs moving to the second floor.
The makeover is even more dramatic on the second floor, where the shelves have been sawed down from 90 to 60 inches, making the space suddenly look much larger.
“We wanted better sight lines for where the patrons are and what help they might need,” Johnson said. “People could wander around in back, and unless they came to the desk, we couldn’t see that they were struggling to find something.”
The cramped second-floor bathrooms were completely rebuilt and made barrier-free.
The downtown branch makeover was inspired, in part, by a similar one at the South Lansing branch, 3500 S. Cedar St., three years ago.
“We loved the open feeling there,” CADL Executive Director Maureen Hirten said.
Across all branches, fewer books are now more appealingly presented, often face outward, as in retail stores, rather than packed spine-out until the shelves groan.
“(Retail) is the model,” Hirten said. “Do you want self-help books from 1998? Do we need three shelves of Abraham Lincoln biographies?”
In the past few years, CADL has added hundreds of online books to its catalog. Physical books that don’t circulate often enough end up in the basement’s used book store, the Book Burrow, unless they’re classics or deemed essential for some other reason.
“We’ve discovered, in all the libraries where we’ve done renovations, that less is more,” Hirten said. “If you have good stuff out there, it circulates.”
Hirten acknowledged the obvious security benefits from better sight lines, but she said security wasn’t the primary reason for the new open design.
“We have security guards that make rounds,” she said.
A side benefit of lowering the shelves and opening up the second floor is that the library’s signature design element suddenly pops out everywhere.
At first glance, it looks like 10-foot-tall, square-trousered squid are attached to the windows, but there’s more to the panels than meets the eye. When Kenneth Black, mid-Michigan’s leading Modernist architect, designed a new library for Lansing in 1962, he was in a phase of decorative Modernism.
The library’s exterior glitters with a latticework of white squares made of concrete embedded with glittering quartz crystals. The designs are colophons, or publishers’ emblems, of four major publishers of the 1960s.
From inside, the panels shield the sun’s rays and let you know where you are in no uncertain terms.
The library’s decorative touches, along with the sunken gardens buffering the building on the east and west and the warm wood panels lining the interior, give the building a stylish serenity.
“It is a very significant piece of architecture,” Gute said. “As architects, we have a certain amount of reverence for it.”
Gute’s team colored the library with hues that respect Black’s cool, understated interior design. Black’s light maple wood panels, a feature that would be prohibitively expensive today, were cleaned and repainted. The stain on the wood had a greenish pigment typical of the 1960s, Gute said — a tough color to work with, but the builders came up with a match.
A prodigal son who hadn’t set foot in a library for years, Gute started nosing around the place as soon as his firm got the job, beginning with his coloring class.
“I was amazed at how many people are in that library, even during the day,” Gute said. “There are people there to get books, but a lot of people are there that are doing work and don’t have Wi-Fi. Frequently, every computer had a person sitting at it.”
As the design process progressed, Gute found that a building that was designed for “book processing and book lending” was surprisingly adaptable.
Gute’s firm, Delta Township-based Mayotte Group Architects, has worked with Cooley Law School, Auto-Owners Insurance and several Lansing churches, but the library project has special significance for Gute.
Mayotte merged in the 1980s with Kenneth Black’s firm after both went through a few iterations. That means Mayotte’s lineage goes back to 1913, when Kenneth Black’s father, Lee Black, started his architectural practice in Lansing.
“It’s kind of like I’m working alongside my ancestors,” Gute said.
When the library was dedicated in 1964, a press release bragged that it was within walking distance of “all four major downtown department stores.”
That era has vanished, but with retail activity and housing returning to Lansing’s downtown, the library’s 2017 makeover reaffirms its status as a community hub and makes Black seem like a prophetic figure.
“People who are now moving out of city areas find that their new surroundings are not the Utopia they expected,” Black said in 1947. “We must again capture the elusive quality of humanness and weave it into the physical framework of our cities.”
Capital Area District Libraries’ downtown branch
(Reopens Monday, March 13)
9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday- Thursday; 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 1-6 p.m. Sunday
401 S. Capitol Ave., Lansing
(517) 367-6363, cadl.org