Transforming Tampa Bay: Liberating the libraries

Tampa’s largest library faces big changes — and an opportunity to mix young and old.

These days libraries are a hot commodity. Though you might think that the reasons for going to a library are fewer, given that so many of their services are now available as downloads, the number of people visiting Hillsborough County’s 25 libraries has increased. No longer just a place to check out books, libraries are now centers of civic life offering programs that teach a host of skills, from resources for startups to 3-D printing. Plus, admission is free.

Architecturally, libraries have followed the typical pattern of investment in public buildings. Our community’s first two libraries, the West Tampa Library and the Free Library in Tampa Heights, were donated by Andrew Carnegie. These grand neoclassical structures — brick edifices with stairs leading to imposing entryways flanked by columns — reflect the high regard in which libraries were held.

Our area was too poor to create civic buildings during the 1930s and ’40s. In the 1950s and ’60s, libraries mimicked ranch-style homes, all flat-roofed and cement block. The suburban aesthetic has continued to be the norm, spawning large, airy libraries encircled by generous parking areas. A delightful anomaly is the Port Tampa City Library, a triangular 1920s bank building with a rusticated base and brick second story that has been repurposed as a neighborhood library with a maritime collection.

Hillsborough County’s largest and most significant library, the 100,000-square-foot John F. Germany Library on Ashley Drive in downtown Tampa, opened in 1965. Elegantly paired columns, perched on a raised base, surround a square temple-like structure (currently undergoing renovations) which is sheathed in glass and travertine marble. Both the main structure and the domed meeting hall in back use newly created materials of that era, pre-cast concrete and formed concrete screens.

Architectural historian Del Acosta observes, “The auditorium is important because of new technology which came about after World War II. Plastics and plywood could be molded, so architects were liberated from post-and-lintel construction. The architects of this period, who were raised during the Depression and survived World War II, were all about the future. The auditorium is futuristic… it looks Space Age, which was new and exciting.”

While the auditorium’s exterior is sculptural and is designed to be inward-looking, I’ve been trapped in too many public meetings there to appreciate its good qualities. I just remember the sense of being entombed. But it’s also arguably the most completely intact example of Mid-Century Modern public architecture in our entire community.

So here’s the big debate: Should the John F. Germany library’s auditorium (as well as the library annex from the 1970s) remain intact, or should it be chopped off to make way for Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s development dreams? The Tampa Bay Times has editorialized that both the auditorium and annex should be demolished and a green space created.

Their argument is that the 1970s addition, which includes the angled “gerbil tube” connection to the Main Building, blocks the river view and needs updating anyway. But there’s a contingent of preservationists who want to protect the library by locally designating it a landmark.

Andrew Breidenbaugh, the county’s director of library services, explained that consultants were hired to develop a plan for the Main Library’s future in 2014, which included public input. “Based on this plan we will reduce the existing footprint.” The strategy includes relocating the library’s administrative and support services to Tampa Heights’ Free Library building, which is owned by the City of Tampa but leased to the library for 10 years. A tree was growing from this fine, historic building’s genuine copper gutters before Mayor Dick Greco invested in its preservation. It’s been used by city departments, then leased to a private law firm, so the idea of it being used by the library system is great, except the public really wants to be part of the mix.

Breidenbaugh said, “We had considered relocating the local history and genealogy collections to the Tampa Free Library, but the estimated costs of life safety renovations to the building that would make it again open to a wider public use exceeded $2.5 million.”

Stacy Warder, president of the Ridgewood Civic Association, has teamed up with Lena Young Greene from the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association to ask the library system to move the children’s part of the downtown library to the Free Library, closer to neighborhoods with children. “We want to be able to walk or ride our bikes. Our area is full of kids,” observed Warder.

Compared with $32 million to redo Julian B. Lane Park, the public investment of $2.5 million to bring the community into this landmarked building seems like a fair cost, especially with hundreds of new condos being built near Ulele. “Wouldn’t it be great if older people visiting the genealogy area mixed with children going to after-school reading programs in the same place?” mused Candy Olson, former School Board member.

Stay tuned to see if Tampa City Council will intervene… or the Hillsborough County Library Board or the Hillsborough County Commission. This could be a win-win for neighborhoods, libraries and historic preservation.

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