A 21st Century Renovation at the Portland Public Library

By Daniel A. Freeman |

The Portland, Maine Public Library is in the midst of a major facelift. This renovation has been years in the making and constitutes a major transformation of the library's exterior. The momentum for this project, which is going to give an already modern city a library with a futuristic look, was too strong to be deterred by the recession. 

The redesigned library will emphasize the idea of the library as a public space. In addition to an information facility, the library will be aesthetically and environmentally welcoming to the community. As part of the town's historic monument square, the new facade provides an attractive, sunny and modern space that is as much a part of the town as it is the library.

I had a chance to talk with Library Director Stephen Podgajny about this project, its unique look and how it came about.


Dan Freeman: So let's start from the beginning--what prompted the plan for this renovation? Was it the simple need to modernize an old facility, or is there more to it than that?

Stephen Podgajny: The Board undertook some strategic planning in the late 1990’s and then did a facility study. A major need that they identified was the Monument Square facility, which is our main library. It is an International Style building created in 1978 and there are not many of those in the US being utilized as civic structures.

In 2003 some design work was done on the building  by Will Bruder of Phoenix which, I feel was very inspired, but ultimately proved too expensive. Some design refinement led to an $8.5 million project. The voters here approved a plan in November 2004 that involved spending $4 million in bonds  with the Library raising the remaining $4.5 million.

When I arrived in February 2006, we had been without a Director for close to a year and it had been hard to raise the $4.5 million. Coincidentally, that month the Portland Public Market, which is directly adjacent to the Library, was closed and put up for sale. The Market is arguably Portland’s most important building constructed in the last 20 years and was a revered public space. The long and short of it is that we took the next year investigating the possibilities of reinventing the Library project and placing it in the Portland Public Market building, but it eventually failed when put to a public vote.

Though we didn’t get the Market we learned quite a few things about programmatic direction and design and changed some of our perspective on the importance of being on Monument Square, which is Portland’s commercial center and its gateway to the cultural district. We then went back to our project with renewed vigor and grappled with the fact that we needed to start building something as a certain amount of fatigue – civic and organizational – was setting in around the project. It was then that we hit upon the obvious idea to phase the project, which enabled us to get going on a $7.3 million first phase, for which we had the money, that would focus on the major public spaces and create a dynamic presence on Monument Square.

DF: Your local paper called this a "glass-faced, audiovisual makeover".  The new design will include a 30-foot audiovisual "urban screen". It definitely sounds like you are doing much more than slapping on a new coat of paint here. What factored into the decision (or decisions) to be so ambitious in re-making your exterior?

Stephen Podgajny: The dual focuses of this first phase are fixing some unsexy infrastructure issues and the idea of the major public space. The idea is to give people a taste of what a great public building might look and feel like and create some sense of pride and inspiration. This phase doesn’t finish the public spaces (several public area still need to be addressed as we move along) but the programming spaces will be tremendous, as will the “popular library,” which has features like teen and children’s areas, new materials, fiction and public computing, all of which draw enormous numbers of people.

One of the other general principles fueling the design discussion was the recognition that the Library needed desperately to make a major change to its aesthetics in order to play a more prominent role on the Square. The aesthetics of the Public Market building certainly sparked some creative thinking for all of us. It is quite remarkable the way the current library building disappears on the Square due to its design and the steep downward grade where it rests. Sometimes you do need to make an architectural statement about who and what you are and renovations are a chance to do it.

DF: Let's talk about that "urban screen". Where did that idea come from?

Stephen Podgajny: A Definition of an Urban Screen is available at our blog :

Urban Screens are defined as large outdoor digital displays, such as daylight compatible LED signs and high-tech plasma screens, used in urban spaces. Although their use in advertisement and news is widely known and readably observable in major U.S. cities—the most obvious example being the Times Square Astrovision Screen in New York City, urban screens are at the beginning of a worldwide movement placing digital displays in public squares for cultural purposes.

We thought deeply as to why it was important for the City that we lived, on its Monument Square, along with the challenge of raising the visual presence of the Library. It became important to think of using our location and redesign of the facade to “invite” people into the Library. So part of the design is its basic architectural appeal but it also is transformed into an active agent with the Urban Screen--it literally, directly invites you in. At the same time we were looking at “information boards” on the interior of the building and thinking about how they convey facts but can also orient you to the building's culture and intent, which is to inform and welcome you.

So that line of thinking began to creep into discussions about the facade. The urban screen concept gained some currency as a potential major design element, but also as a way to raise the visibility of the Library and the heart of downtown.

DF: How will you use the screen practically? Is it going to be more than just eye candy?

Stephen Podgajny: Portland prides itself as being a place that values cultural activity--it is a huge part of why the City shows up on numerous Top 10 lists as a desirable place to live. In fact Forbes just cited us one of the top places to live in the United States. For a City of 64,000 people, the Art Museum, Historical Society, Symphony, Stage Company, Opera and other cultural elements are tremendously dynamic organizations. In addition there is a tremendous “scene” of activity around galleries, music and other cultural institutions. A good deal of it is multicultural, as evidenced by approximately 50 languages spoken in our schools. The Library has had more branches per 10,000 people than any other city in the northeast United States.

So in light of that cultural fabric, the screen becomes a terribly important vehicle to promote awareness, use and support of those cultural resources.

We plan to manage and curate the Urban Screen through a collaborative of cultural organizations that will take some responsibility for its effectiveness. The screen can benefit individual organizations directly but the overall impact of infusing the street with a new level of energy will help everyone in the cultural district.

Portland Public Library’s urban screen will have important ramifications for the recommendations recently proposed by the Creative Economy Steering Committee to Portland City Council, particularly in developing and sustaining Portland’s Arts District. (Creative Economy Steering Committee, “Report of Recommendations to the Portland City Council,” October 14, 2008).

In fact, the urban screen could be the “tipping point project,” a project identified by the Committee for the Arts District to give the area visibility, connect the cultural institutions, and engage the community (see page 16 of above-linked PDF).

DF: How will this renovation change the way you provide library services? What technological changes are going to be put in place inside the building? Will these changes allow you to do things you were previously unable to do?

Stephen Podgajny: For the first time since the building opened in 1978, there will be a logical ordering of the spaces and a design that library members will be able to intuitively understand. Many of the points of friction that result when there are no options for staff in directing users who have a certain space need will be gone. If you need quiet we will have that type of space; if you need to sit with some buddies at a computer and talk at a certain level we have that. We have lots more flexibility and better service. Lots of libraries have done this well in recent years and I hope we are successful as they have been.

I think the basics of a more robust network infrastructure will be very important. We have been struggling mightily with bandwidth issues. We will also significantly expand the number of computers for public use, the main auditorium and meeting rooms will be heavily wired for audio, video and of course for web access. I envision our programs now being much more varied in terms of hosting on-line events for the public. I also think the information boards throughout the library will be a good feature to orient people and to help them learn about our programs. Self service checkout is not new of course but we will be putting that into play now that we have a bit more space and a better design to handle patron presence. The teen and children’s areas will have a great deal of technology available to support programming and other daily activity.

There are also 14,000 square feet of Green Roofs that will provide different types of user spaces and opportunities for collaborators to teach and help us maintain the roofs. The Green Roofs like the Urban Screen are Phase II (or as soon as we get the money) items. Those Roofs, like the Urban Screen, will also be managed we hope through a collaborative of community organizations.

DF: Finally, I realize that your community has been planning and saving for this renovation for a long time. Still, you've had the back luck of launching your plan during a major economic downturn. Will the economic situation affect your plans? If so, how?

Stephen Podgajny: I have always been a believer that if you have a great project or program or idea and you are relentless and passionate you will succeed. You have to really live it and talk about it enough so that your language becomes direct, yet inspiring in expressing the vision. The other thing you have to do is not get tired of hearing yourself talk about it. That’s hard for us as librarians sometimes; as we value subtlety, nuance and think if we have said it once we have said it enough. Obviously, this is not true; ask any politician!

So we will stick to it and raise funds as quickly as possible for Phase II of the project hopefully jumping off from the excitement generated by Phase I quality and vision. At that point the envisioning of the potential of a completed project should be contagious.

We will get there!