The slow-reading movement
Winging it at the Julia Ideson
Preservationists are rejoicing over the unveiling of downtown's latest urban gem: a new archival wing for the historic Julia Ideson Library and an adjacent reading garden. The debut represents the wrapping of Phase I of the Julia Ideson Library Preservation Partners' vision for a fully realized and restored structure housing Houston Public Library's Metropolitan Research Center.
Historic preservation specialist Barry Moore of architecture firm Gensler oversaw the realization of Ralph Adams Cram's 1923 blueprints for the library, which before the post-modern Jesse H. Jones building came to be in the 1970s, was the city's book-lending headquarters. Cram, whose CV includes New York City's Church of St. John the Divine, the Rice U. campus and Houston's Trinity Episcopal, envisioned the library as the flagship building in a proposed Spanish Renaissance Revival civic center — a nod to Texas' colonial roots — and the only portion begun before the Great Depression steered the municipal aesthetic to a more austere Art Moderne makeup.
With the 2006 formation of the nonprofit Julia Ideson Library Preservation Partners, the brainchild of Bill White and spearheaded by Phoebe Tudor, the Ideson got a second lease on life, embodied by the 21,500-square-foot expansion that was part of Cram's original vision.
"The library has a great collection of original drawings and construction photographs of this original building when it was built between 1925 and '26," explains Moore. "Because there was such a great historic record, we didn't have to do any guesswork."
Despite the plans' near-century-old pedigree, the construction materials are all new and the building anticipates a LEED Silver certification for its sustainability standards. Yet the designers kept a keen eye to detail. "These bookshelves came out of the third-floor special collections room in the old building. They were refinished and then repositioned in here," elaborates Moore. "Interestingly, the bases are different heights, but we lined them up so that the cornices are all the same. We wanted to carry the authentic flavor into this reference room."
Even the wing's new tables and chairs were designed to replicate the 1920s originals.
The collaboration between the nonprofit and architects seems just as cozy as the reading area: "Working with Phoebe Tudor was wonderful. It's the only project I've had where when I go into a client meeting we get a hug," Moore says. "And working with the library staff, those people were just heroes."
"I always feel like when you work on something from the bottom up," Tudor says, "working on the plans forever and ever, to finally get to the finished project, whether it's an addition on your home or a big building like this, it's just so gratifying." The head of Preservation Partners is more than a lover of books. She holds degrees in art and architectural history and historic preservation, and followed the architects through each detail.
"I just think they did an excellent job taking the original plans," Tudor says, "and making it work for modern needs."
However, the most appealing feature of the new complex is beside the library. Nestled between the new and old wings is a new reading garden — an urban oasis where visitors feel ensconced in the university cloisters of Renaissance-era Iberia.
"You'd never guess that on the other side of that fence, there's a downtown metropolis," says college student Ana Alvarez, who took advantage of a recent brisk morning to take pause and read on the terrace. "I definitely see myself coming back to study."
On the second floor, overlooking the garden is an open-air loggia, where glimpses of Philip Johnson skyscrapers peek through the freshly planted palms. Adding to the secret garden mystique is the fact that the verdant enclosure is only accessible through a discrete entry at the corner of Smith and Lamar Streets. The expanded library may feel boutiquey, but that's for all of Houston to relish.
Phase II of the project, involving the original building's restoration will be complete next summer.