Architect: A. E. Doyle (Doyle & Patterson)/renovation: Fletcher Farr Ayotte, 1913; renovation
The notion of Portland having a free public library was fought by many of the city's founding fathers (and mothers). The argument ran that if books were offered to people free, no value would be attached to them. Rugged bibliophiles got the library built anyway; in fact, these library pioneers were so independently minded, they rejected a $100,000 offer from Andrew Carnegie to help build a library in 1901. "Portland is able to take care of itself," sniffed a library spokesperson.
A. E. Doyle worked in conjunction with the city's chief librarian, Mary Frances Isom, to lay out this building's interior. Isom had studied library science in New York before coming to Portland; she had also organized libraries in French hospitals during World War I. Doyle and she went on a tour of some of the nation's libraries to avoid mistakes made in other cities, while searching for inspirational designs. The result was an efficient interior layout that has been well preserved over the years and remodels.
* More than 70 percent of all Multnomah County residents have active library cards.
The exterior of the Central Library has a brick Georgian faÃ§ade with the first floor, basement, and trimming done in Indiana limestone. A. E. Doyle chose the Georgian style as "the most typically American architecture we have." He apparently derived specific inspiration for the distinctive arched window design from the Boston Public Library (1892, McKim, Mead, and White). Part of the external allure of the Portland building is its surrounding cast-stone wall and railing. Benches with engraved names periodically appear, inviting ne'er-do-wells and somewhat reducing the scale of the building.
Doyle felt that, because of budgetary constraints, the library's exterior lacked the necessary decoration of a properly finished building. Even so, in his address given at the library's opening, he noted that this "is a library building, not an art gallery, nor a place for amusement " its architecture " (should reflect) surroundings of quietude and refined good taste."
* In 1887, former U.S. attorney general George H. Williams stated that Portland librarians should withhold any materials that would "demoralize people and disorganize society - such as those that favor anarchy, free love, and such objects." (Is that what the sophisticates perched out in front of this building favor?)
Three of the library's outer walls are devoted to lists of influential individuals from the annals of Western Culture " in other words, mostly dead white guys. It is fun to run through the lists, pondering the selection process. For example, on the south side of the building, do we really need fifteen Bookbinders listed, even on a library? And how could Muhammad be left off the list of Religious Leaders? Ah well, it was a young and innocent age " Thomas Edison had not yet even distinguished himself enough to make the Inventor list on the north side of the structure.
* The Multnomah County Library was the only library in the U.S. to offer regular service to a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
In 1991, structural weaknesses in the reading rooms on the second floor required the installation of steel scaffolding in the book stacks for strength, and catalyzed discussion of an overhaul of the building. The electrical system was particularly unsuited to deal with the needs of what has been transformed into a media center. The building needed to be brought up-to-date with seismic and technology upgrades, and "technologized." The subsequent $25 million renovation of the library was finished in 1997, with a respectfully traditional yet creative remodel of most of the library's interior.
Ornamental plaster ceilings were restored and revealed, and two huge shear walls of reinforced concrete were put in to stabilize the entire building for seismic reinforcing. Throughout the interior, the building was completely renovated in the best sense of the word, with the original coffered ceilings in the lobby revealed again above the scagliola columns. Higher up, the leaded glass dome in the third-floor ceiling was originally above a cut-away hole in the third floor, allowing light to fall down to the second floor. Not any more.
* The library's Garden of Knowledge theme can be seen in its etched black granite steps in the main lobby (by Larry Kirkland), as well as in the bronze, 14-foot Tree of Knowledge in the Beverly B. Cleary Children's Library (Barbara Eiswerth and Dana Lynn Louis, artists).Less Text