The long-overdue Johnson building renovation effort seemed on a roll: Mayor Thomas Menino allocated more than $14 million in what turned out to be his final capital budget for a much-anticipated facelift to the Copley Library's cavernous Johnson building on Boylston Street. Real estate interests were salivating at the prospect of some of the library's street-level acreage being turned into retail space --as yet undetermined in focus but pledged to be 'compatible' with the library's mission. A prominent architectural firm, William Rawn Associates, was hired for the construction of Phase 2, to start in December. An engaged and lively group of local citizens, the Community Advisory Committee, met numerous times to come up with the best possible redesign to revive the moribund city block on Boylston Street where the library is located. This summer, the BPL and its trustees made a strong presentation before the Boston Landmarks Commission for permission to remove the granite chastity belt of plinths that now encircles the building on three sides, condemning the entire block and the library to a state of perpetual chill. All good and well. The question is, with Mayor Menino leaving office in a few months, what will the new mayor, John Connolly or Marty Walsh, think of it all?
The governance structure of the BPL makes the mayor of Boston The Big Decider in the library universe. One of the side effects of this autocratic set-up is that the trustees do not have their own political or financial power base from which to defend the interests of the BPL as they diverge from the mayor's. He appoints the nine trustees, who serve at his pleasure; they are not vetted or approved by either the city council or another public entity. The trustees hire the BPL president, keeping a close eye on the mayor's wishes; five years into the job, the current president, Amy Ryan, is likely to face contract renewal. Finally, whatever residual financial autonomy the BPL once had was wiped out in 2008 when the roughly 200 library trust funds, totaling close to $60 million, were moved from the BPL president's control to the mayor's budget office, despite vehement protestations by then-BPL president Bernard Margolis. Therefore, in theory, the Johnson building project could grind to a halt for lack of support by the new mayor, or even his mere desire to want to review the entire project and its premise before moving forward or sideways.
That would be too bad, as became evident at the Community Advisory Committee's meeting on October 18, when Rawn Associates presented a mock-up proposal of a vibrant new Johnson building artfully connected to the McKim building with initial designs to become visually integrated with the street scape on Boylston Street. The nine quadrants that form the basic design of the Johnson building are opened up to light flowing in from the enormous windows on the first and second floors, with easily navigated and color-guided pathways to browsing areas, circulation, fiction sections and Bostonia collections, as well as 21st-century spaces for teenagers, children and tots on floor two. Sets of bathrooms on the second floor alone make the entire renovation worthwhile: no bathrooms exist there now. Many details remain to be worked out, among them what art work or fountain or installation to place in the center of Deferrari Hall, the enormous lobby behind the current Soviet-style lobby on Boylston Street that dwarfs the information desk in the center of it, where a forelorn staffer or two bravely dispense directions to bathroom and book.
The integrated street scape/library entrance on Boylston Street is still mostly a concept to be fully developed and finalized in subsequent phases of the renovation project. An immediate complication is the unfortunate location of the portable public restroom in front of the BPL, part of a large city contract that is said to bring revenue into city coffers as it injects tackiness into the library site. City representatives at the Friday meeting said it was the most popular street bathroom in Boston, exceeded in usage only by the one located in City Hall Plaza. "In that case, perhaps City Hall Plaza could use a second one next to it," was the tart response from Community Advisory Board member Meg Mainzer-Cohen, also the executive director of the Back Bay Neighborhood Association.
The next Community Advisory Committee meeting, open to the public, will be held January 15, at 9 AM, in the Commonwealth Salon of the BPL. This meeting will focus on the exterior, landscaping and partnership spaces. For more information on the Johnson building project, click here.