The Big, Red Central Library Turns 20

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The exterior of the Central Library in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.

The exterior of the Central Library in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Central Library is celebrating 20 years of service in May and San Antonio is having a party – or two. Big Red, as it is affectionately known by locals, will host a free party for the public on Saturday, May 9, from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. And the exclusive Mexican Modern Gala under the Stars will be on Friday, May 15, at 6:30 pm (tickets $100 and up). The official anniversary is May 20. It is time to reflect on the progress of the Public Library’s programming, the benefits of this building, and idea on how it can be improved.

Gone are the days that libraries are strictly quiet places for reading, studying, and checking out books. While demand for print books continues 6 to 1 compared to digital copies system wide, according to San Antonio Public Library figures, digital usage has increased by 51% since October 2014 and 38% overall in fiscal year 2014. The Central Library calendar is dotted with summer reading programs, literacy training, technology courses, arts and crafts sessions, and the Jobs and Small Business Center. Vast collections of DVDs and CDs are available to check out in addition to books.

The Central Library’s new 6,000 sq. ft. Teen Library at Central, currently under construction on the third floor, is set to open Tuesday, May 12 and represents SAPL’s continued dedication to providing cutting-edge technology and activities to San Antonio’s youth. Teens can experiment with drones, 3D printing and a recording studio all while surrounded by the book and resource collection for high-school aged teens. And, yes, while there will be plenty of space for studying, there is also space for playing video games, painting, and even dancing.

A new section for the library’s ever-growing Latino Collection is also taking shape for its opening in early 2016. Currently housed on the sixth floor, the new space carved out on the ground floor will continue to emphasize the works of local and international Latino authors and artists. Established in 1996, the more than 7,000-volume collection “chronicles and celebrates the literature, heritage, and contemporary life of Latinos in the United States.” Most of the collection focuses on the Mexican American experience, but materials about Puerto Rican, Cuban American, and other Latin American heritages are also included.

First on the list of benefits of the Big Red building itself is the ease of accessibility. After Big Red opened in 1995, circulation more than doubled over the previous year at its former location, 203 South St. Mary’s St., now known as the International Center and home to Biga on the Banks.

But I miss Kenmore Avenue. Kenmore, as many homemakers know, is the appliance brand name for products by Sears. The location of the Central Library rests on the footprint of the old Sears Department Store, which opened in 1938. There was a street between Sears and the multilevel parking lot. I wish the city would re-name the passageway as it was in my childhood, Kenmore Avenue.

Ricardo Legorreta (1931-2011)

Ricardo Legorreta (1931-2011)

I am glad the parking lot was retained. A drawback to the Main Library was the lack of parking. Mexico’s celebrated architect Ricardo Legorreta, who died in 2011, was the chief architect for Big Red. San Antonio’s Davis Sprinkle was his collaborative partner. I appreciate Legorreta’s thoughtfulness in wanting people to experience nature. For example, he purposefully created an open walk from the parking lot to the building.

In the high altitude of Mexico City, such experiences are desirable. In the deep heat of San Antonio’s summer, however, we can do without 10 steps in the sun. Patrons as well as books could use a cover, especially when it’s raining.

In the old days of Sears, the parking lot was connected to the store on an upper level by an overhead sidewalk. In my childhood imagination, sky bridges would connect all the tall buildings in the future. Such a walkway at Big Red would do more than provide a unique entrance to the library. It would provide cover from the rain and sun for patrons below.

Neon Artist Stephen Antonakos created the “Blue Room” entrance to enhance the change from exterior to interior. Though it does provide an inviting entrance to the library, it can be confusing. Many patrons exit the library only to enter the Blue Room again. Then they find they cannot depart, they must go back through the lobby and re-exit.

The Blue Room at the Central Library in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Blue Room at the Central Library in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.

The exterior and interior design of the library encourages the idea that it is a place to meet, share, learn, or be entertained, all in a relaxed and enjoyable manner.

The many balconies and outdoor areas of the Central Library were designed for use – but they are consistently closed to regular patrons. Legorreta would probably turn over in his grave if he knew this functionality is in lockdown. Some of the terraces are available for rental for private events, but normally, only the staff has access so plants can be watered.

Legorreta was quoted as saying, “I wanted to break the concept that libraries are imposing.” He has succeeded in most areas. The current staff succeeds in this regard as well.

While personnel at some branch libraries may dispel children’s enthusiasm for books by insisting on total silence (even in the children’s section), the ambience in most departments of Big Red is suited for its purpose. The Story Room in the children’s section is soundproofed from the rest of the library.

I appreciate the open interior of the library’s first three floors as it is a vestige of the Ramona Plaza Sears. The upper floors wrapped around the walls of the old Sears store, leaving the center open for several floors. One could see the location of the department that he or she wished to go.

This feature still exists at the Central Library. The interior view is grand and is greatly enhanced by the light sculpture by the Artist Dale Chihuly. “Fiesta Tower,” installed in 2005, is a treasure of San Antonio.

Is child safety the reason the balconies are closed? A glass fence was built atop the low wall by the children’s section on the third floor to discourage climbers. But the kids’ area would be better suited on the first floor. Imagine the difficulty in herding 30 grade-schoolers up two flights of escalators.

The exterior of the building is, for the most part, exemplary. “Big Red” has replaced the lexicon for the soft drink and the courthouse. The bright “Enchilada Red” color of the 1995 structure has faded and warmed into a pastel rosa. The sun-softened pink now contrasts with the hard edges of Legorreta’s platonic geometric shapes.

Not everyone likes Legorreta’s structure. A critic at the Project for Public Spaces complained, “…this place exemplifies the type of object-focused architecture that is unconnected to anything around it.”

The original arbor on the Eastside must have been a mistake. A grove of trees withered for years before management finally accepted defeat. Did the trees die from too much sun or lack of water?

In 2003, the library planted more trees, this time with an irrigation system that reused water from the air conditioning. Alas, that plan did not work out either. Another garden was planted, using water runoff from the roof to nourish the plants. The most recent garden was constructed in 2012.

The plaza at the Central Library in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.

The plaza at the Central Library in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.

The drive-in entrance on Soledad Street is accessible for the VIA paratransit service so people with disabilities can be dropped off at the door, yet the circle has its drawbacks. Even though cars may drive in, one must still exit the vehicle to place items in the book drop.

The lime in our water has discolored the fountain and, sadly, water no longer flows. A separate water source or filter could remedy the discoloration while conserving water – but many fountains in San Antonio sit idle. Before the city builds any new fountains, perhaps we should restore the fountains at the libraries for Big Red, the San Pedro branch, the Landa branch, and others.

A drawback at the entrance of the old library was the fact that it was a central transfer point for city bus lines. I’m glad we don’t have such a transfer station in front of Big Red, but it’s too bad a regular bus cannot navigate the drive-in entrance. VIA buses drop off patrons a block away on Main Avenue or else behind the library on Navarro Street.

Inside, the staff posts ropes near the checkout area to guide patrons to the desk. Quite often the queue will cross the lobby, blocking the movement of people. The ropes should be arranged to direct patrons toward a less-used area.

The current location of the DVD and CD collection is a bit awkward. Patrons are instructed to check out the items in the media section using self-service scanners and then get in line again at the main circulation desk to have the security boxes removed. This redundancy is, well, redundant.

A fascinating feature of Big Red is the placement of windows on the sixth floor. Each ventana is strategically placed to light each row of books. Natural light is brought indoors, and the patron’s view is brought outdoors. The deep window sills prevent direct sunlight from fading the books. The views from the fifth floor are spectacular as well.

I also appreciate the way the interior breathes. For example, when the café in the basement didn’t work out, the area became a used bookstore for the public and a break room for the staff. A sculpture grew in the area for new books. “Axis Mundi,” by Sebastián (the same renowned Mexican sculptor who designed the “Torch of Friendship” downtown), blossoms like a nine-foot tall flower.

There are many other world-class works of art in the Central Library.

“Days,” by San Antonio’s own Jesse Amado, honors the legacy of Linda Pace, founder of ArtPace and beloved artist, collector and philanthropist. “Caballo Tamaño Grande” (the big fat horse), by Colombia’s iconic painter Fernando Botero, exemplifies his playful and rotund shapes. A series of self-portraits and a mural of marquees by San Antonio’s own Jesse Treviño adorn two walls on the ground floor. Other pieces of art, including constantly changing exhibits in the Gallery, will inspire the muses of any book lover.

Some complain there is too much openness, too many empty shelves. They fail to realize plans for future growth. The former Main Library held 450,000 items. Big Red now holds almost 600,000 items; the capacity is 750,000. And the Central Library, along with its neighbor, the Southwest School of Art, has become home to the annual San Antonio Book Festival, staged each Spring on the Saturday before Fiesta. It’s an event that draws thousands downtown without the lure of beer or a sports score.

A complaint is sometimes still heard from the uneducated that the library was a waste of taxpayers’ money. Not true. As downtown San Antonio enters a period of true renaissance, let’s remember that for many years, the only new architecture on our skyline that didn’t have the word “hotel” in its name was the Central Library. It deserves a big anniversary celebration. Pay a visit to Big Red soon – it will earn your interest.

 

*Featured/top image: The exterior of the Central Library in downtown San Antonio.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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13 thoughts on “The Big, Red Central Library Turns 20

  1. “As downtown San Antonio enters a period of true renaissance, let’s remember that for many years, the only new architecture on our skyline that didn’t have the word “hotel” in its name was the Central Library.” Perfect.

  2. I have to disagree with you on one thing. I don’t know ANY branch library that insists on total silence anywhere in the library, much less the children’s section. I’m a children’s librarian. 🙂

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