A Less Dingy, Less Raccoon-Infested Brooklyn Public Library


The central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, on Eastern Parkway, has what has got to be the coolest façade in the borough: a fifty-­foot-tall portico, adorned with bronze Art Deco sculptures depicting fifteen classic characters from American literature, framed by two huge limestone columns covered with gilded bas-reliefs of a hissing griffin, a rising phoenix, and a spiny dinosaur, representing the evolution of art and science. The interior is another ­matter. “The floor in the lobby used to be so grungy, I cannot even tell you,” Linda Johnson, the president and C.E.O. of the Brooklyn Public Library, said the other day. “The lighting was dark, dingy—a mess. However”—she placed a hand on the shoulder of the woman standing next to her—“that was before Toshiko.”

“It was not the most airy space,” Toshiko Mori agreed. “We did our best to make it more inviting.” Mori is a Harvard professor and a New York-based architect who has designed an artists’ colony in Senegal, a public pavilion in China, and dozens of sleek buildings across the East Coast. In 2015, the library hired her to draw up a master plan for a renovation to the central branch, where construction first began in 1912. Mori and associates from her firm spent three years, off and on, shadowing and interviewing the building’s employees. “We found several systemic issues,” she said. Some were aesthetic: the lighting; walls and staircases that were misplaced. But most were “infrastructural things. Wiring, duct­work, plumbing. Many, many problems with book storage.”

The master plan became a four-phase, hundred-and-twenty-million-­dollar project, the first part of which was completed last month. “The pandemic was terrible, obviously, but it allowed us to move much faster than expected,” Johnson said. She and Mori were standing outside the main entrance, wearing masks and sunglasses, waiting for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to begin. Johnson, who is very tall, wore heels; Mori, who is not, did not.

The ceremony began. “Every time I stand up here, I start by saying how excited and delighted I am, and I mean it every single time,” Johnson said, from a lectern. “But I have never felt it or meant it more deeply.” Johnson’s husband, the real-estate developer Bruce Ratner, fumbled to applaud, juggling a coffee cup in his left hand. Johnson, reading from a wind-rustled page, rhapsodized about a “poured-terrazzo floor that makes you completely forget the linoleum that preceded it.” She ad-libbed: “Maybe it’ll make you forget it. I will never forget it.”

Mori spoke, followed by a philanthropist, some local politicians, and three sons of the late Major Owens, a long-serving congressman from New York, who got his start as a Brooklyn librarian. Chris Owens, the eldest son, struggled to lead a chant of “This is what a library looks like!” and read from his father’s poetry. (“Human history is a long, ugly tale / Tragedy guided by the frail monster male.”) Millard, the youngest, gave a speech that went on, judging by the poker faces behind him, about eight minutes longer than planned. Geoffrey, the middle son, recited Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, and, reading the room, left it at that. An hour in, the higher-ranking politicians had sneaked off. “Now, where’s that scissor?” Johnson said.

After the ribbon was cut, Johnson and Mori led a tour. Standing a respect­ful distance behind them was Landon Brown, the project architect, who oversaw work on the site, walking there each day from his home, in Crown Heights. The new lobby was indeed much more inviting. “The biggest changes are the things you’ll never see,” Brown said. He gestured toward a ceiling duct: “You don’t want to know how much stuff is hiding behind that.”

“Everyone wants to talk about the sexier stuff, the fourth-phase stuff,” Johnson said. “But first you’ve got to do the H.V.A.C. and the toilets.” What was the sexy fourth-phase stuff? “Oh, I can’t, it’s a big secret,” she said. She kept the secret for about five minutes. The fourth phase, if it ever gets funded, will involve a roof garden and a ­terrace that will connect the library to Mount Prospect Park and to the Brooklyn Museum, the Botanic Garden, and the park beyond. “That way, Eastern Parkway becomes a kind of Fifth Avenue,” Mori said. This put her in a futuristic frame of mind, and she began talking about librarians as “navigators of knowledge,” and the “limited associative capacity” of artificial intelligence. Ratner, behind her, tapped out a text on his iPhone.

The tour paused at the library’s New and Noteworthy section, which is laid out as in a bookstore, with eye-catching light fixtures visible from the street. Brown, near the back, was still telling war stories from the construction. “You get a lot of funky stuff when you start messing around with an old building,” he said. Feral raccoons, for example. “They were living in the stacks, inside the ceilings,” he continued. “They really didn’t want to leave.” Eventually, one of the construction workers figured out a solution: maple syrup. “He would spray it in the parking lot, and they’d all run outside,” Brown said. “They tried to sneak back, but it bought us some time.” ♦



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