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Simple materials, complex design contrast at library

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The Cleo Rogers Memorial Library’s wide-open spaces, brick interior walls and columns and light flooding in through tall windows all beckon visitors to relax with an engrossing novel in one of the structure’s many alcoves, as if sitting in an outdoor urban park.

The park atmosphere is advanced further by the Library Plaza, which, along with its Henry Moore sculpture, “Large Arch,” and the closing of Lafayette Street on the building’s east side, played an integral role in the plans of I.M. Pei, who designed the library in the late 1960s.

Retired Columbus architect Jim Paris, who designed the library’s addition in 1987, said he enjoys the building for the contrast between the simplicity of materials — concrete, brick, glass — and the deceptive complexity of its design, which includes an air-handling system built into the brick walls and concrete ceilings, whose coffers, or sunken square panels, absorb sounds but also hide light fixtures and air vents.

“This is one of the finest buildings in Columbus,” said Paris, 74. “It’s a very complex design.”

Stainless steel baffles above the concrete ceilings direct heated and cooled air. Air conditioning vents along the sides of windows prevent them from fogging.

Windows on the north and south sides are recessed about eight feet from the exterior brick, allowing natural light to filter in — but preventing direct light from blinding library patrons.

Figuring out those kinds of details takes a lot of work, Paris said.

Pei’s work also complements the brick exterior of another modern marvel across Fifth Street, the Eliel Saarinen-designed First Christian Church, which can be seen from the library’s interior.

The library’s mezzanine, which overlooks the ground floor on east and west sides, features a square skylight, which basks plants underneath in natural light. The low brick wall that surrounds the planter on all four sides provides an additional seating surface.

As he stood on the mezzanine, which has some offices on the north and south sides, Paris gazed west, down toward the main library floor, which is dominated by a high ceiling and red brick columns contrasting nicely with the light wood of the bookshelves, whose subdued height augment the room’s spaciousness.

A lower ceiling, Paris said, would have made the space cramped and confining.

The masonry, he said, makes the building very warm and inviting. And curves on the stairway handrails soften the impact of the gray concrete.

“It’s a very clean, open look,” he said. “That makes people comfortable.”

When the library was built, a brick plaza on the north side covered what is now the children’s library. It was meant as another urban park, with trees and chairs offering patrons an area to sit in shade, relax and read.

However, the area beneath the northern plaza soon began to leak. On rainy days, library staff had to catch dripping water with about 25 buckets.

Paris brought in a masonry expert in 1984, who essentially concluded that the issue could not be fixed, after which the library board hired Paris to design an addition to cover the plaza.

That required figuring out the weight of the bricks on the plaza, the gravel below and the membrane underneath that because Paris had to know how much the addition could weigh. The weight constraints also meant that Paris could not, as Pei had done, design the addition with a concrete ceiling, which would have weighed too much. Instead, Paris chose light steel.

But he made sure to install some concrete strips above the addition’s windows, so that from the outside, the addition looked very much like the original.

Weight concerns also required that shelves in the addition not exceed a certain height. And a plaque on one of the columns warns that no heavy objects can permanently be placed anywhere within a radius of 14 feet.

When Paris traveled to New York to talk to Pei about the addition, Pei “really wasn’t very happy about the whole thing,” Paris said.

To assure that natural light would continue to filter into the original structure on the north side, Paris suggested a skylight, which slopes down toward the addition, an idea that Pei approved.

According to the library’s website, the main library was financed with a bond issue. Construction, which began in November 1966, took almost three years.

Though not part of the Cummins Foundation Architecture program, the Foundation contributed to the building fund, and the J. Irwin Miller family donated the land occupied by the Columbus Area Visitors Center and the library. Miller and his wife, Xenia, also donated the Henry Moore sculpture to the community.

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