April 06, 2020

The return of the Bangor Public Library > New structure a browser’s paradise, with memorable spaces and wired for future

The last time we visited the Bangor Public Library, the venerable old downtown landmark was showing the effects of its long and active life.

The granite steps leading to the front doors, a path worn smooth by 85 years of steady foot traffic, were cracked, twisted and unusable. More than just a routine repair problem, they were the most visible evidence of a creeping deterioration that threatened the future of the classic beauty from the inside out.

Walls were cracked, floors sagged perilously, and the leaky ceilings jeopardized the library’s book collections. Safety violations had rendered the upper rooms off limits most of the time, while downstairs the staff worked in crude, cramped quarters to maintain the library’s reputation as one of the busiest of its size in the country.

As for all the talk of outfitting the library for the high-tech demands of the telecommunications age, those closest to the operation wrestled with a sobering reality. The library’s woefully outdated wiring system, with its fuse panels lifted right out of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, was never going to power the grand old building into the 21st century.

Come Monday, when the new-and-improved library reopens to the public, visitors will be amazed to see what $8.5 million, a world-renowned architect, and a year and a half of work can do to erase the ravages of all that benign neglect.

“People won’t recognize it anymore,” said Barbara McDade, the library’s director, as she toured the carefully restored old rooms and the elegant 26,000-square-foot addition. “They may need maps to know where they’re going.”

That’s not such an exaggeration, either. As proof, loyal patrons need only consider two words they never thought they’d hear in connection with the Bangor Public Library: open stacks.

For the first time since the library’s dedication in 1912, patrons now may wander among the library’s 485,000 volumes, sampling the literary banquet at their leisure. No more having to place orders warehouse-style at the circulation desk, then waiting as runners disappear into the darkened labyrinth to retrieve the books.

The library is a browser’s paradise at last, offering opportunities to roam the place front to rear. Add to that a new three-level addition, where sunlight pours in from large arched windows overlooking a garden entrance and a brick terrace, and patrons will navigate an expansive new layout that may take a little getting used to.

Bibliophiles eager to revisit their favorite haunt will find themselves in delightfully unfamiliar territory soon after passing through the old wooden doors on Harlow Street. The main lobby looks pretty much the same, as do the spruced-up reading and reference rooms to the left. Turn right, however, passing through the old children’s room that now houses the new-book collection, and the addition unfolds in a sweep of warm, ivory-colored spaces wired for more than 20 computers and with a bathroom on every floor.

Designed by Alex Lamis of the noted New York architectural firm of Robert A.M. Stern, the wing adds lots of tastefully appealing new space to the library while paying loving tribute to the original Greco-Roman facade.

“Bob Stern’s stamp on the project is the respect he shows to the existing building,” said Tom Vanderweigh, the firm’s project manager for the library expansion. “That’s one of the things he’s built his career on — his admiration for beautiful old buildings, for the commentary they make on the past as well as what they say to us today.”

Stern, a dapper, globe-trotting workaholic who has visited Bangor four times since the project began in September 1996, has left his subtle though distinctive mark throughout the new building. From the upholstered chairs, reading tables and hanging lights he designed for the addition, to the whimsical duck-silhouette lamps perched throughout the children’s floor and its slate-walled entrance, Stern managed to create “memorable spaces” each step of the way.

Most notable of all, perhaps, is the addition’s semicircular end. By bringing curved elements to his design, Stern was able to incorporate a fan-shaped children’s amphitheater that will hold 100 children, as well as a rounded two-story reading room that visitors can gaze upon from the third floor.

“There are many little things like that, many small details that play with the existing architectural language and tweak it a bit,” said Vanderweigh, whose firm is involved in 40 other projects worldwide. “And it’s all done in a way that smoothly connects the old building’s elements with the new. There are no jarring differences.”

Yet getting the library ready for Monday’s opening continues to be a jarring task for McDade, who has overseen two other library-building projects in her career. Not only has she had to monitor the work of Nickerson and O’Day Contractors of Brewer, which Stern praised on a recent visit for its fine craftsmanship, but she’s had to run the library from its temporary quarters at the old Marden’s store on Outer Hammond Street.

“I have a recurring nightmare about this,” said McDade, raising her voice over the clamor of the construction. “I’ve actually awakened in the middle of the night, sat straight up and said, `Whaddya mean we can’t move back on the 26th!’ But it’s coming along. We’ll be there.”

There will be no hoopla surrounding the library’s reopening, McDade said. She prefers to allow her staff to become acclimated to the new layout before the celebrations start.

“We won’t dedicate the new building until the first three days in May,” said McDade. “Then we plan to kick off a year’s celebration, with each month dedicated to one of the arts. By then we’ll have new landscaping in the front and back, with flowering shrubs and trees at the garden entrance.”

In the meantime, the public has been invited to submit their personal records of life in Bangor in 1998 — in photos, essays, drawings, computer disks, etc. — that will be sealed in a time capsule and eventually buried under the new children’s terrace.

“We want people to think about what they would like to tell people 50 years from now about who we are, how we live, what we do for entertainment, what concerns us,” said McDade.

Josh Harrison of Bangor, who spent a recent afternoon helping to move shelving, was not a regular library patron in the past. He’s a book browser, he said, and the closed stacks were a turn-off. But after getting a look at the new, browser-friendly library, he’s thinking about becoming a steady customer.

“The place is incredible,” said Harrison, surrounded by stacks of book-filled orange crates. “I can see myself spending a lot more time here from now on.”

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