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A photo of Atlanta Central Library from Forsyth and Carnegie streets.
The downtown landmark, from Forsyth Street and Carnegie Way.

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Touring Marcel Breuer’s Central Atlanta Library, prior to renovations

A distinctive—if not universally beloved—downtown Atlanta icon faces an uncertain future

Former Atlanta Public Library director Carlton C. Rochell, known as something of a modern architecture aficionado in his day, was taken with The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City when it debuted in 1966. The following decade, Rochell began pushing for a structure of equal impact and importance to serve as Atlanta’s centralized library hub. He wanted a world class building by a word class designer. In other words, as Rochell once said in localized terms, he needed a home run, so it only made sense to bring in Hank Aaron.

Rochell’s architectural slugger of choice was The Whitney’s designer, Marcel Breuer, a Hungarian-born modernist with Bauhaus roots whose Brutalist works in particular would earn him mention among Eero Saarinen and Frank Lloyd Wright as the twentieth-century’s most influential architects.

Construction began in 1977 on Breuer’s Atlanta work, with largely windowless geometry and stepped patterns that echoed the Whitney, and wrapped in 1980.

As Breuer’s last completed project (he died at age 79 the following year), the audaciously nonconformist—and some would argue, off-putting—library would be declared “one of the finest buildings of [his] long career” and “indeed ... world class” by Isabelle Hyman, a New York University Department of Art History professor emerita, in a 2008 essay.

Come next month, however, the One Margaret Mitchell Square landmark will have reached a crossroads downtown.

The Brutalist concrete exterior from Carnegie Way and Fairlie Street.

The Central Atlanta Library is scheduled to close July 2 as preparations begin for a $50 million renovation that’s expected to take at least 18 months, resulting in what Dr. Gabriel Morley, Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System’s director, has called “a completely reimagined space.”

Detractors, meanwhile, have likened aspects of proposed changes—namely, banks of windows cut into the library’s facade—to desecration.

Library officials did not return inquires this week, but a bulletin on the agency’s website makes clear the design phase is nearly complete and that opportunities for community input have closed. Renovations are expected to begin in earnest this fall.

A request for proposals pertaining to construction has been distributed, but it remains unclear if the revamp led by architecture firm Cooper Carry will include more exterior windows to allow for enhanced natural lighting.

A bulk of attendees at recent library input meetings were devoutly anti-window, but library system officials have pointed to a survey of 3,240 people that indicated the majority of respondents (2,333) favored more exterior glass.

The library’s central staircase, from the fourth floor.

In one meeting last month, Morley told Curbed Atlanta his group was “definitely committed to the windows” as a means of bringing some “inside out and some outside in.” He further explained: “What we’ve always heard about this building is it’s dark; it’s dingy; it’s dank, and the windows are a way to enliven this.”

The most updated Cooper Carry renderings, with proposed interior and facade changes, can be viewed here. Local offices of other firms have proposed library updates in recent years with less physical exterior alterations, but those visions have been mooted.

Here we present a Visual Journeys look at the library as Breuer intended it, prior to renovations, whatever those may be.

Shadows at play, as seen from Fairlie and Williams streets, as the midday sun passes.
Renderings indicate the openness of the central stairs would be retained.
The library’s third floor computer lab today.
Leaving the library, to Forsyth Street.

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