Building a Library for New Orleans
As an expression of pride in the past and confidence in the future
[The wording on the original mosaic wall in front of 219 Loyola,
composed by the architects and the library staff]
the citizens have dedicated this Public Library of New Orleans for all
whose thirst for knowledge leads them into
the eternal quest for truth.
Planning Construction Reaction
Click on the thumbnails above to view selected images from our exhibit.
The real thing will be on view on the third floor of 219 Loyola until January 28, 1999.
On December 15, 1958, the new Main Library at 219 Loyola Avenue opened its doors to the public
for the first time. First day users were dazzled by an ultramodern glass and concrete structure that had already received
a design award from Progressive Architecture magazine and would soon be honored by other publications.
Sixteen years after its inauguration, the building was still capturing praise. The New Orleans Chapter of the
American Institute of Architects, in its Guide to New Orleans Architecture, used these words to describe
One of the most successful public buildings in town both
in use and design, its two most distinguishing features are
the bronze-anodized sun-screen around the top two floors
(which, wittily--because so unexpected--actually works)
and the well-lighted all-glass interior permitting views
from each floor to the others.
Now another twenty-four years have passed since that statement was made, and
the "new" library is now the "old" building at 219 Loyola. Happily, though, in spite of the passage of time and a
few bumps and bruises, the Main Library is still functioning very well indeed as an urban public library in the
midst of the Information Age. In almost every respect, the building has met the expectations and hopes of its
designers, who envisioned a structure that would serve the present and the future.
Who better to judge the
continuing success of the structure and remind us of the original vision of its design than Arthur Q. Davis, the
lead architect for the Main Library, speaking from the perspective of forty years:
It is difficult to realize that it has been 40 years since John
Hall Jacobs (the Chief Librarian in 1958) and I developed
a philosophy for the design of the new Main Branch of
the New Orleans Public Library. The concept, which all
parties readily embraced, was that we should create a
building of openness, more like a department store space,
rather than the contemporary conventional libraries of
that period which seemed to turn inward upon
themselves. He wanted, and I think we were able to
deliver, a building that would have a feeling of
"welcome," visually as well as emotionally bringing
patrons into a space where they would not only have
access to books and periodicals, and other reading
materials, but also stimulate a desire to browse into other
areas of the library.
Building on this concept, we were able to create spaces which flowed into almost every part of
the building. The visitors are able to sense and be aware of what was happening in other areas
of the library. As an example, from the check-out counter, under the mezzanine, but also the
second level with vistas into the spaces beyond the building, including the sunshine, clouds and
trees in the rooftop patios. This open plan concept permitted maximum flexibility, and through
the 40 years of its constant use there have been opportunities to change uses within the existing
volume. With the open plan concept, it has been a relatively easy matter to convert spaces to
different functions, while at the same time preserving the integrity of the design of the building.
This is probably a unique feature of the library.
Since the exterior is sheathed in glass there is, in the daytime, a view from all parts of the library
out into Duncan Plaza, and the green lawns and magnolia trees give the building a sense of
place. In the evening, the structure takes on a glow. When lit from within the building literally
sparkles. This is due not only to the glass facade, but also the anodized aluminum sunscreen
which is functional, as well as decorative. We made calculations on the screen which would not
only be ornamental, but also serve as sun control, shading the building from 9:00 a.m. till
sunset, giving protection from the low winter sun, as well as recognizing the conditions at the
high summer solstice. Just as an anecdote, it might be interesting to note that our original
concept of the sunscreen was to be gold anodized, which we felt would give the exterior an even
more dramatic effect, but the Mayor, at that time, deLesseps S. Morrison, decided that the
appearance of a gold building would be something that the public might read as a waste of
public funds and therefore we were forced to change our specifications to an aluminum finish
rather than gold.
Since the major stacks for the library are located in the basement, which is, of course, below sea
level, we had to solve the design problem of building below the water table since this was the
proper place to house the stacks, rather than taking valuable space on the upper two floors, we
had to be certain that there would never be an opportunity for the basement to flood. Although
the stacks are below water level, all entries into the building are well above the historic high
water mark, and in addition we installed emergency sump pumps under the lowest basement
slab. The recent high water in the CBD past weeks should have been a real test. Since the
basement was below sea level it was necessary for us to design a pile foundation which would
literally hold the submerged box of four levels of books down into the ground until the structure
above us was completed to take into account the hydraulic thrust so that the building would not
float right up out of the ground. This condition existed until the loads imposed by the floors
above could offset the upward thrust. Contrary to normal design problems, in this case we had
to design a pile foundation that would hold the building down, rather than the opposite situation,
where a building might normally have a tendency to settle.
I sincerely feel that the building is as functional and as aesthetically pleasing today as it was 40
years ago when it was finished. The introduction of the roof patios, the different levels, and the
interplay of spaces, and the glass facade, all add toward making this building unique among
This exhibit in celebration of the Main Library's fortieth anniversary features
photographs from the Louisiana Division's Municipal Government Collection (New Orleans Public Library series),
along with records from the City Archives and other Louisiana Division Collections. It was designed and mounted
by Irene Wainwright and Wayne Everard of the City Archives staff. They were assisted by Ridgway's, Inc. (digital
plotting, color laser printing, and lamination) and by Robert Baxter and Charles DeLong of the NOPL Duplications
Division (lamination). They are also grateful to Arthur Q. Davis for contributing his explanation of the designer's
intentions and his thoughts on the building at forty--and for designing basements that do not flood!
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