At Last

By staff November 1, 2006

Something wonderful has appeared on the north side of our town: the North Sarasota Public Library.

Surging up from its site on Newtown Boulevard, opposite the Newtown Estates Community Center and near Emma Booker Elementary School, facing the eastern section of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the new library is a hopeful statement about the architectural and educational future of Sarasota. Its bold planes, rising in strong geometric shapes behind majestic, mature trees, speak volumes about vitality and youth. This is not your grandmother’s public library—unless  she is as excited as I am by soaring lines, vivid colors and spaces flooded with natural light.

Approaching the complex, we see first a bright red-orange tower, apparently pierced by the upward line of the sloping roof. The tower’s surface above one of the main entrances bears shiny metallic plaques, part of an extensive public art installation by Evelyn Rosenberg that’s also found in several places inside the building. These “windows,” each devoted to a subject that can be explored in the library, were commissioned by the praiseworthy Sarasota County Arts in Public Places Program. Clearly intended to stimulate interest in reading, the sculptural portals to knowledge are also very effective in their jewel-like relationship to the surfaces and mass of the library building.

Newtown Community Center’s park and sports fields, the first impression is one of high energy, symbolized by the thrust of the red canopy over the principal entrance, a welcoming gesture consistent with the atmosphere to be found within.

The lobby, rising to the full height of the building, while a bit over-resonant acoustically, is a wonderful space, full of light and optimism, devoid of the stifled “hush” so often prevalent in libraries of the past. The transition into the main reading room (past superb photographs of Newtown life by Sarasota’s Steven Katzman) is a quiet revelation, as the eye is led upward to the strongly angled ceiling of exposed trusses and snaking air-conditioning ducts, and then to the blond wood stacks and reading tables, some with computers. On the day of our visit, these tables were fully occupied by a diverse blend of young and old explorers of knowledge.

At the west end of this large room, a charming sculptural archway leads to the area devoted to reading materials for younger patrons. Here, the ceiling is lower, punctuated by light wells, and the colors are from a different palette: They are darker on the main walls, which are punctuated by glass brick squares admitting light magically colored by the mustard shade of the outside surfaces at this end of the building.

In a stroke of inspiration, the architects have created a kind of “cubby” in the west wall:  curved alcoves perfectly sized to hold a young body in a semi-reclined attitude, just the sort of thing a child always wants to do, especially if told not to. Scuff marks on the flat parts of these mysterious indentations attest to their success. 

Much attention has been paid to the desire of the literature-addicted to find a quiet place to read, think and imagine. Along the south side of the main reading room, near the enormous glass wall looking out into the great heritage trees and the Florida native landscape, several sets of tables and chairs, almost concealed by the book stacks, promise privacy and quiet. On this side of the building, the generous overhang of the roof is anchored to the ground by a series of canted supports in such a way that the entire structure seems to float.

On the inside wall, above racks of periodicals and CDs, more of the “Kaleidoscope” panels are found, close enough to yield the secrets of their depictions of the human brain, string theory and a circus elephant, among other subjects to be read about here. Another set of these “windows” is found above the exterior door of the well-equipped community room, which opens on to the entrance plaza facing the boulevard.

In addition to the care taken to provide environmentally sound landscape (requiring little if any water and suited to our climate), the entire building has been designed to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, meaning that lighting is provided by natural light to the greatest extent possible, including ithrough sensors that turn off artificial lighting when a room is empty. Heating and air-conditioning systems are also managed by sensors that react to the actual temperature in the room rather than pre-set controls.

Floor and wall surfaces, too, are certified to LEED standards, avoiding toxic chemicals in dyes and adhesives and using recycled materials whenever possible. The carpet squares in the main rooms are easily replacable should they be stained, eliminating the need to replace large areas of flooring to correct limited damage. The offices, meeting areas and community meeting and conference rooms meet the same standards, while providing unusually tranquil and airy surroundings for staff and visitors. 

This library is clearly intended to be a welcoming presence in the community, as noted by Todd Sweet, AIA, who, together with Karl Brown, designed the building when they worked together at SMRT, a firm no longer active in Sarasota. Sweet explains, “The community can walk by this building and see activity inside. They can see their friends and neighbors.” This is architecture meant to eliminate any impression of elite inaccessibility, both in its open design and in the way its parts work effortlessly together.

The need for this approach is most apparent when one looks at the history of this project. The Newtown community has been trying to build a library since 1921, when a Reading Room was opened on 12th Street and a library association was organized. In 1985, Friends of the Newtown Library opened a facility, but it closed in 1988 because of a lack of funding. As long ago as 1992, Newtown residents had begun actively seeking a branch of the county library system.

Here, at last, is the long-awaited result of community activism: We have a first-class public library designed to serve the Newtown community and its environs. It is a fine building, expressing the energy of modern architecture while providing top-quality services, and it demonstrates how imagination can create a place where architectural civility and daring bring people of varied heritage together in the pursuit of knowledge.

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