Whither the Plinths: Success of Retail Addition and Library Upgrades to BPL's Johnson Building May Hinge on Landmarks' Approval to Remove Visual Barricades on Boylston and Exeter Streets

There are many reasons why the Boylston Street entrance to the Copley Library --known as the Johnson building-- can't hold a candle to the grace and appeal of the McKim building to which it is --awkwardly-- connected, according to participants in the so-called Johnson Improvements project, now underway at the BPL. But the  focal point of their wrath has become the 93 plinths that encase the Johnson building on three sides. The seven-foot granite barriers were placed there in the 1970s after architect Philip Johnson, who had designed the addition without any windows fronting the streets, compromised with then-BPL trustees who insisted on having windows. "He put them in but then covered them up," explained Bill Rawn, who was hired by the BPL as the lead architect to help rejuvenate the Johnson building and create viable retail space to go with it. The plinths obstruct natural light, cut off the library from the street, and create a dead zone on what should be a prominent block on Boylston Street, say the eight members of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC). The success of the project,  which has for its goals revitalizing the library's Deferrari Hall, a new and expanded Children's Room on the second floor as well as revenue-producing retail space on the first floor and concourse level below, may well hinge on the removal of the vertical barriers.

There will be little opposition from the Library Board:  "I just want to make sure the plan is for the plinths to come down," said Rep. Byron Rushing, one of the eight trustees on the nine-member board, after an in-depth presentation last Tuesday by Rawn, the eminent architect of a number of local libraries, Mattapan, East Boston and the Cambridge downtown library among them. "If all we do here is remove the plinths," Rushing continued, "this project will be a success as far as I am concerned." "If necessary, I'll loan you my gavel for it," joked Library Board chair, Jeff Rudman.

What is no joke, however, is that the plinths, as well as the facade of the Johnson building and Deferrari Hall on the inside, have landmark status. Boston's Landmark Commission will have to approve the changes, without which creating attractive commercial space and long-overdue major upgrades to the Central Library are unlikely. But opening up the library to the street and reconnecting it to the community is an important goal for architect Rawn, as it is to the CAC members and BPL executives. Which means convincing the Boston Landmarks Commission to approve removing the plinths will be key.

Monetizing some of the one million square feet that makes up the Central Library may seem incompatible with an institution that has the words  FREE TO ALL carved above its entrance. A baby step in the process of capturing revenue for the BPL occurred in 2009 when the City moved the Kirstein Business Library, then located in its own building behind the Old City Hall downtown, to the lower level of the Central Library on Boylston Street. Revenue from the Kirstein trusts that paid for operations at the previous location has since been used by the Central Library to offset  its operating costs, after court approval in 2010.

Merging commercial enterprise with the library's mission to capture income poses thornier issues, however, including whether the revenue generated by public library space will be applied directly to the BPL or to the City's coffers for general use. The hours needed for successful retail operations, especially innovation/high-tech spaces that are open 24/7 --proposed for the lower-level concourse where Rabb Hall is located-- don't match limited library hours either. A spokeswoman for the librarian's union stated, moreover, that for increased hours of operations at the BPL to mesh with the hours demanded by successful retail space "should not be negotiated on the backs of library staff" and that preference should be given to retailers who provide good wages and benefits. Finally, maintaining  security for both the library's collection and retail establishments while promoting easy access and a welcoming environment at the same time, will require additional sophisticated, and expensive, solutions. CAC member Gary Saunders wondered whether it would make sense for any retail space at the Johnson building to have a completely separate entrance from the library. But first....the plinths...Stay tuned.

The CAC meetings are open to the public. The next one will be held April 10, although the date still has to be confirmed. Check the BPL web site under News and Events. Scroll down to Strategic Planning for further information and dates.