The Library Center

By Abby Mendelson

The Library Center in Downtown Pittsburgh opens in May 1997, the highly anticipated result of five years of planning between Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Point Park College. Uniting the services of a public library system with those of a private college library is a unique accomplishment in the world of libraries.

Gladys Maharam has been appointed interim director of the Library Center. She notes that the library will develop in phases as it adds additional computers and services for both college students and the general public.

“You’re a mess, honey.”

—Marlene Dietrich to Orson Welles, A Touch of Evil

The grand, bronze-framed clock proudly faces the Wood Street entrance, a monument of the Gilded Age, when Fourth Avenue was Pittsburgh’s Wall Street, and Pittsburgh industry ran the world.

The marble Corinthian columns are firm and solid still, inside fabled architect Frederick Osterling’s T-shaped Colonial Trust. The marble stairs are strong and sinuous, and the facility is handicapped accessible without compromising the integrity of the original design.

Across the wide expanse of the former bank lobby, torn plastic strips hang in shards from the ceiling, and summer sunlight streams through the dirty skylight. Gone are the 1970s restaurants, like Café Cappuccino, Bahama Mama, the Rusty Scupper and the Board Room. Gone are the Bank Cinemas I & II, the rabbit’s warren of partitions and drop ceilings, the gift shops and clothing stores, and a disco called The Library, surely the world’s first shot ‘n’ a book joint.

Gone, gone for a decade and more, is the Bank Center, that ‘70s tribute to Downtown High Life.

It takes a little imagination, as it has taken lo these many years as the project lay gestating, to get past the past, and past the present, the ruined 20th Century of 12 Monkeys, to the 21st-century Library Center, a blend of Carnegie Library’s Downtown and Business Information Center, and the Point Park College collection.

Off in the distance, a radio plays Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” and the workmen’s buzzing saws keep time.

Architect Syl Damianos, in jacket and Dockers, his long black hair streaming out the back of his hardhat, gestures broadly. “The initial concept was to preserve,” he says, “but the most difficult thing is to introduce today’s comfort into a historic building. In general, our solution is a combination of old and new. How do you handle ornament—and sprinkler lines?” A trademark laugh. “If it were easy, anybody could do it.”

Preservation does indeed war with contemporary statutes and style—and the important ADA is just one part of it. Light and heat and air conditioning had to be brought into the century-old building, and to spaces not designed for them in the original plan, “without destroying the character,” Damianos says. His solution: a power trellis which hugs the walls and holds light and system outlets.

In addition, because it combines five different buildings, the new Library Center has 22 distinct levels. Damianos found a way to provide wheelchair access to every level—some areas not much larger than a postage stamp. “Every one,” Damianos says proudly. “It was a challenge, the most challenging project I’ve ever done.”

He’s done plenty. Now part of Damianos + Anthony, Syl Damianos is the local library design guru, having performed architectural services for more than three dozen area libraries, including most of the Carnegie system. In a distinguished career that has included a national presidency of the American Institute of Architects, he cut his teeth on Pitt’s Hillman Library in 1966. Damianos’ first battle: convincing the university, whose stacks up to that time had been shoehorned vertically into the Cathedral of Learning, to go horizontal with their collections. Pitt demurred; Damianos persisted and won.

When Damianos says the Library Center is “unique,” it is a statement backed by a broad knowledge of the field. Combining public and college collections, attracting patrons, expanding programs, the $4 million re-use of a Downtown landmark “should become a model for other libraries around the country,” he says emphatically.

With Damianos creating the concepts, and partner John Anthony making them work, they proceeded. The original bank vaults—their enormous doors with locksets the size of small nations—will remain, as offices, reading areas, conference rooms. The ubiquitous plaster cornices have been retained, repaired, lovingly restored.

It wasn’t the same with the mechanical and electrical systems. First, they had to separate the Library Center from the adjacent Bank Tower, an operative office building. The old wiring—which looked as if it had been installed by Krazy Kat— had to be unraveled so that the building could serve one master. “The lines ran all over the place,” Damianos shakes his head. “It was a nightmare.”

In some ways, dealing with the building, or buildings, was like an old Bill Veeck promotion—the late owner of the Cleveland Indians would give away a case of canned goods—with all the labels removed. Yes, drawings of the buildings existed, but many of them were out of date, so that Damianos and Anthony weren’t exactly sure what they were dealing with. “We didn’t know what was here until we started taking things away,” Damianos says. “You ought to try and draw it,” he shakes his head.

Stone, concrete, plaster, marble, faux marble—plus dangerous asbestos and lead-based paint—they dealt with the proverbial mixed bag of materials, each requiring a different treatment, to restore or rebuild. “I grew up as an ultra-contemporary designer,” Damianos says. “But I’ve come to appreciate what preceded us. We can’t do it again, so you want to re-use as much as possible.

“Saving buildings because they’re old is not enough,” he cautions. “Saving buildings because they have importance to the community is a good reason. Because we’re convinced that architecture contributes as much as anything, including books and computers. Here, we wanted to create a wide open learning space with the resources for knowledge. It’s a great combination.”

“To Oz? To Oz!”

—Ray Bolger to Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz

The meetings began in 1990, or ‘89, nobody much knows for sure anymore, and they’re too exhausted to check. Let’s take this derelict building, combine the Downtown Carnegie Library collections with those of Point Park College, and create a stronger Downtown presence. Voila! The Library Center.

Not quite. Lack of money was one issue, as were the daunting prospects of combining different collections, and philosophies, clienteles, purposes, visions and technologies. It was a frustrating, time-consuming process that predates the arrival of Loretta R. O’Brien, Carnegie Library deputy director, who stepped into the process five years ago. “People have come and gone,” she sighs, “but we have moved forward.”

O’Brien speaks for many when she says the new 60,000-square-foot Library Center will be a magnet. “When you can put something in Downtown that the community needs—and information is a resource people need—in a manner that is attractive, timely and relevant, it will be a draw. We’re very excited.

“It’s a grand building,” she adds, “a wonderful space that speaks to our rich history. Into it we put the information of today—computers, resources, staff, and during the first year of operation we'll continue to grow to reach the vision of what we want this facility to be. It’s a great resource, a good balance between past, present and future. This is a library building that Andrew Carnegie would be proud of.”

Balances, and partnerships, is what the new Library Center embodies—with Point Park College, with the business community, with the computer lab from the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, the Job Center, SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), SBA (Small Business Administration), and other groups, all of whom want to be linked to this resource center, all offering services unique to the business—and general —community. “It looks to be an extremely fruitful marriage,” O’Brien nods. “Point Park President Jim Hunter was instrumental in working with Carnegie President Ellsworth Brown and Library Director Bob Croneberger in moving the project along.”

Because their missions are so different, academic and public libraries deliver services differently, at least until now. Public libraries are traditionally open, accessible to all: books circulate, and librarians offer much help. Academic libraries, on the other hand, are focused on the needs of students, faculty and staff. Students and faculty want materials available on call, meaning large quantities on reserve, and not circulating.

“Basically, the two service philosophies conflict,” O’Brien says. “So it was most important, from the Carnegie Library perspective, to provide a seamless service to our patrons as well as to Point Park faculty and students.”

As for developing a sense of customer service in the two groups, bringing the two staffs together, “There was some soft shoe and tap dancing regarding those issues. It was pretty interesting,” she laughs, and leaves it at that.

“What’s the interest for my family?”

—Marlon Brando to Al Lettieri, The Godfather

We think of libraries as staid and solid, and permanent, but the Downtown Branch has had an itinerant life, never staying in one place too long. It’s been a long day’s journey to its present—and, we can begin to assume, final—home.

The original Business Branch opened in 1924, in the City-County Building, lasting six years until the city controller took the space. “City Hall was not an ideal location,” former Library Director Ralph Munn wrote in 1970, “because of the many petty political hangers-on who divided their days between standing in the corridors and resting in the branch.”

The Business Branch moved to the Union Trust Building (now Two Mellon Bank Center), then, in 1950, to Oakland, to be part of the Reference Department. Eighteen months later it moved back to the business district, to the Frick Building, where it stayed until ‘57, when it moved to Kaufmann’s annex. Later, the Business Branch went back to the Frick Building, then in ‘85 to the lower levels of One Mellon Bank Center. Now, it seems, the Business and Downtown branches are home at last. “It’ll be a nice place to work,” says Pam Craychee, department head of the Downtown and Business Information Center. “We’ve been buried underground for quite a while now.”

Although the library space quintuples, “this will not be a mini-main library,” Craychee stresses. “Small business will continue to be a major focus. We’ll be able to give the business community broader access to non-business material as well as to Carnegie Library resources and the Internet.

“This is quite an extraordinary opportunity,” she continues. “These days, libraries are coordinators—not merely collectors—of information. The advantages for Downtown patrons include centralized, convenient, informational resources.”

Yes, Carnegie Library will bring 1,400 reference books, 150 journals, and indexes of all types, but the really big news is the 100 computer terminals that will be installed, with on-line databases, CD-ROM, e-mail, Internet and electronic services far beyond what anyone could have imagined even five years ago. “The world has changed a great deal since this facility was first considered,” she says.

Blending Carnegie Library’s 30,000 volumes, plus serials, bound periodicals, and microfilm/microfiche archives, with Point Point’s 124,000-volume Helen-Jean Moore Library has created an information juggernaut —but now with the world literally at your fingertips via the Internet, the depth of the well is literally without measure.

General browsing won’t be overlooked, of course, with resources on popular fiction to science fiction, pet care, gardening, home repair and so on. There will be industry magazines, specialized indexes for stock market, finance, human resources, management, small business development, job search, marketing and more. Like others, Craychee has no clear view of how great the traffic will be, but she knows that her current 800 people/day is bound to become bigger, much bigger. Point Park alone will see to that.

The refurbished 200-seat movie hall will permit the Library Center to expand its free and public Noontime Series—Tuesday for general, architecture to archaeology, health to history; and Thursday for business, estates and trusts, finance and small business programs aimed at attorneys, accountants and auditors of all types.

Both Carnegie Library staff and Point Park staff are focused on teaching the public how to use a library, especially the 21st- century version. The goal, through information kiosks and gentle guidance, is to have the public begin to use the library independently, the way students do.

While merging staffs, programs and collections has been “a major challenge,” Craychee admits that after endless discussions they discovered that “libraries share many of the same issues and concerns. We have a lot in common with Point Park. I see very little conflict.”

“The future, Mr. Gitts.”

—John Huston to Jack Nicholson, Chinatown

When the Bank Center opened in 1977, potential customers could not get into the Rusty Scupper—the dinner line stretched into the street—and The Library was the hottest disco in town.

But things change, and downtowns always seem to need revitalization. The Forbes-Fifth corridor has been moribund for more than a decade. But now there is the new library, a promised Lazarus department store, and other possible developments. For drawing people to an area, and spurring additional growth, “a library can have the same effect as a department store,” offered Errol Frailey, president of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership in 1996. “It makes Downtown a more interesting place.”

Sitting, as the Library Center does, on Wood Street, between Forbes and Fourth avenues, it is two short blocks from FirstSide, the extended Monongahela River wharf section, and the oldest part of Downtown. Due in no small degree to federal tax breaks, FirstSide saw a spurt of revitalization through the early 1980s, but now the area has been stalled for more than a decade.

Will the Library Center spur more development? Could it encourage long-sought housing in the area, thickening the 3,000- odd count of Downtown residents?

Most pundits agree that while it is a strong amenity, the Library Center by itself cannot kick-start Downtown, or start a FirstSide revival, or extend the Cultural District past Fifth Avenue. But the Library Center will help. The buzz, the hum of activity always draws. The Library Center’s free services, programs, computer sites, and extended hours will create interest. “The creation of the Library Center is going to make Wood Street a strong connector to FirstSide,” Frailey said. “The area will be blended more into Downtown.”

Indeed, the Library Center’s very appearance, cleanliness and security will transform a spot that for 10 years has been a dirty, chained-up eyesore. “A lot of great things are happening,” Frailey said. “The first step is the Library Center, the most exciting project to open in 1997. It has been anxiously awaited by the Downtown Partnership, and we will do anything we can to make it successful.”

“Does it have a ‘wow’ finish?”

—Humphrey Bogart to Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca

“This project has been our nemesis and our carrot for five years,” Pam Craychee says. “All of us looked forward to doing this. Now, we want to see if the ideas we’ve been thinking about will work. It’s been visionary and future for a long time now,” she continues. “But now it’s practical—and immediate.”

Abby Mendelson is an award- winning writer whose most recent book is The Pittsburgh Steelers: The Official History.