When the Atlanta-Fulton Central Library opened in May 1980, then-Mayor Maynard Jackson declared the downtown building “the standard bearer for cultural interests of Atlanta.” More than a decade in the making, the cube-shaped structure—the final work of famed Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer and an exemplar of Brutalist style—was considered a remarkable addition to the evolving cityscape.
“It used to be in the hubbub of all the activity,” said Kyle Kessler, a downtown resident and historic preservationist, as we stood outside the library’s front entrance. “But the building suffered as downtown declined in the 1980s.”
For all its critical acclaim, the Forsyth Street fortress was more respected than beloved by locals. Slowly but surely, the library became under-funded, under-maintained, and under-utilized. Shortly after its 25th birthday, an inevitable question arose: Should we replace or refurbish Breuer’s modernist monolith? The response was, well, very Atlanta.
In November 2008, Fulton County voters approved by a two-to-one margin a new $275 million master plan for the library system. The plan, which included a property tax hike, called for the county to build eight new libraries, expand two existing facilities, and renovate 23 branches. At the last minute, then-Commissioner Robb Pitts added a provision to the referendum that called for $84 million to build a grander and larger central library to replace the Breuer edifice, which would then be sold. (Pitts’s somewhat complicated scheme required the county to raise $50 million in private matching funds for the new library. He secured another $27 million in funding from the Atlanta BeltLine’s tax allocation district in 2012.)
But the referendum’s timing was lousy, coming on the cusp of the Great Recession and a significant downturn in the metro economy. As county revenues sank, fundraising for the new central library stalled and Pitts’s plans were effectively shelved. Now, nearly eight years later, Fulton officials plan to revisit the future of the central library before the year’s end. As the decision-making process continues, many architects fear Breuer’s concrete showpiece could be in peril. The World Monuments Fund, a private preservation nonprofit, listed the building as one of nine “most endangered sites” in the U.S.
“Was it the best-designed library? You could debate that,” says Atlanta architect Bobbie Unger, a board member of the Architecture and Design Center, which has collected nearly 1,000 signatures for a petition to save the Central Library. “Does it have a friendly-welcoming environment? You could debate that as well. That style of architecture—very austere, very overwhelming—we don’t have anything like that here in Atlanta. It should be valued.”
While the building hasn’t developed a wide fan base in Atlanta, it’s a virtual mirror image of the former home of New York’s Whitney Museum, also designed by Breuer. That site, which opened on Madison Avenue in 1966, was recently taken over by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Nevertheless, Pitts, who left office in early 2014, argues that the 2008 referendum obligates the county to build a new facility—ideally on par with Seattle’s stunning central library. “With all due respect, [Atlanta’s] looks like a prison,” said Pitts, who believes wealthy donors will be quick to write checks once they lay eyes on a suitably impressive rendering.
“Instead of building the best pro football stadium on the planet, Arthur Blank could’ve come up with some cost-saving measure,” Pitts said. “In Atlanta, we’re big, we’re bold, and we’re visionary. One thing that’s missing is a futuristic, state-of-the-art iconic library like other major cities around the world have.”
However, Fulton Chairman John Eaves says, Pitts’s plan is “probably, most definitely, off the table.” Library board members instead are considering the construction of a smaller downtown library—more on the scale of a branch library—that reflects its low circulation rates. (It currently ranks 12th out of 33 Fulton libraries in materials loaned.) By taking this approach, Eaves explains, voters would get a new central library and the county would get leftover cash to pay for much-needed system-wide improvements. Ultimately, he envisions a “central library complex” in which the Auburn Avenue Research Library would be expanded into a central library.
“The reality is more people use our library branches than the central library,” Eaves said. “The usage of that library doesn’t warrant the resources.”
Kessler, a former president of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association, believes the county should instead renovate Breuer’s building. It wasn’t difficult to see the disrepair as we walked through the building last Wednesday: The front door glass was broken, one of three elevators had been out of service since late January, and giant plastic tarps covered the roof to stop water from leaking inside. Basic amenities that would make it more visitor-friendly—a café, a coffee shop, and a drive-thru drop-off window—haven’t been in operation for years.
Ironically, Atlanta preservationists might find their strongest ally well outside the Perimeter. Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who represents Alpharetta and Johns Creek, says she doesn’t see the economic merit in building a new downtown library. Instead, she’d like to see the county modernize the building by outfitting it with a new tech center and expanded community meeting spaces. In her mind, the best way for the library system to move forward is to not forget its past.
“The ‘Atlanta Way’ is to tear things down,” Hausmann says. “Frankly, it’s somewhat foolish for us to leave the building. It needs refreshing. But it’s in a great location. And it has great architecture. I would prefer that we go against the grain.”