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The Old and New Library

Preservationists, it seems, are never wrong. Too frequently in our recent past, significant old structures are razed simply to obliterate them from the landscape, with no replacement to rise in their stead. Nationally, as people have become reacquainted with their urban centers and in doing so, their cultural histories, the trend has been to rediscover the value in their aged infrastructure.

By Sam Cummings/Photography by Michael Buck

The library’s great hall (left), with its elaborate marble and mosaic tile floor, feels strong and proud.

Historic preservation has risen from being an impediment to “progress” to a tool for economic development. Thankfully, this trend has caught on in our fair city.

Not only are we finding new uses for our older buildings, but in many cases, we are restoring them to their original grandeur, in some instances going to great lengths (and expense) to undo some of the painful modifications made in decades past to “modernize” them.

This past spring, Grand Rapids rediscovered one of its greatest architectural and cultural icons, the Ryerson Public Library. Dedicated in 1904, this building is a stunning example of Beaux Arts architecture. The style first gained prominence in the United States after the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. There, the first batch of American architects (most notably, Richard Morris Hunt) who attended L’Ecole Nationale Superieur des Beaux Arts in Paris “showed their stuff” in an elaborate construct of temporary buildings that exhibited Renaissance classical inspiration. The style, characterized by elaborate surface ornamentation and decorative detailing, would dominate public buildings in this country for two decades.

By the middle 1960s, the original library, designed by architects Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, was in need of expansion. The execution, carried out in the era that I refer to as “the dark age of American architecture,” marred and concealed the interior features of the existing building and tacked on an inconsistent parking deck-like structure.

Fast forward to 2003. After a $31 million publicly and privately funded renovation, the building is once again a source of pride for our community. The interior modifications have been reversed in the original building, and the addition, while not attempting to directly mimic its forebear, has been tastefully rehabilitated to better complement the dimensions and intent of the original design.

Buildings have a way of affecting our psyches. This is one that you have got to “feel” to believe. Taking time out from work one afternoon, I walked over to the building to explore it in detail. The majesty of the facade only hinted at the swelling of emotion that came over me as I entered the great hall. The grand stair, hewn out of an incredible marble, curls around to the top of a great atrium that floods the building with natural light. Beyond, the transition from original building to addition, which includes a café and a brief exhibit on the history of the library, is incredibly well done. Another large atrium dominates the new space and a sweeping, open stair leads down to the lower level. It is difficult to duplicate the grandeur of the materials of the original structure, and the designers — Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr and Huber — didn’t try. Instead, they thoughtfully used new materials in an effort to respect the dimensions of it.

Although it is divided into several distinct areas by necessity, the addition has the feeling of being very open and user-friendly — a tough assignment, well executed.

As I descended the stair to the exit, a woman sat reading on the marble landing. It occurred to me that for nearly 100 years, knowledge has been sipped in that very spot, and it reminded me of why great old buildings are worth saving. GR

Sam Cummings is the president of Second Story Properties. For more information on the main branch of the GR Public Library (111 Library St. NE), call 988-5400 or visit

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