After languishing for decades as an under-used and dimly lit repository for valuable archives, the lofty public spaces of Houston’s Julia Ideson Library are reinvigorated with profuse natural light and luminous interior surfaces in a $32 million restoration and expansion. A timeworn vestige of pre-Depression splendor, the library has regained its polychromatic grandeur in the restoration of the original building designed by Ralph Adams Cram and completed in 1926. Gensler’s restoration and 21,500-square-foot addition—and an outdoor garden designed by landscape architecture firm TBG Partners—now bring the library into the 21st Century.
The comprehensive restoration of the landmark, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, has returned the vibrantly painted coffered ceilings to their original brilliance and recovered unique works of art long ago dispersed to other municipal properties. In addition, newly installed state-of-the-art technology protects the city’s trove of antique documents—including rare photographs, first-edition books, and architectural plans of significant local landmarks—for future generations of historians.
The three-story original library, renamed in honor of a long-time city librarian and rendered in the Spanish Renaissance style, evoked Houston’s rising fortunes of the 1920s with ornamental exterior masonry and opulent interior finishes. It was the first phase of what was an expansive master plan for a downtown civic center envisioned in a belated response to the turn-of-the-century City Beautiful movement. The library was the only component of the master plan to be built before the onset of the Great Depression.
Ironically, the recent economic downturn did not derail efforts by local philanthropists to raise $21 million from private donors. Another $11 million came from public funds garnered through municipal taxes collected by the downtown tax increment reinvestment zone.
Drawing from the past
Gensler completed the project in two phases, first constructing the new three-story wing, the adjacent two-story loggia, and the ground-level garden before renovating the existing structure. The starting point was the schematic drawings produced in the 1920s by the building’s original architects Cram & Ferguson, according to Barry Moore, FAIA, a senior associate at Gensler who was the project manager. He described the renderings as “extremely useful” in discerning the Cram & Ferguson design intent for a larger project that would have included a south wing, loggia, and garden. Budget constraints caused city officials to jettison that additional work in the 1920s.
“Our interpretation is very closely related to Cram’s original drawings,” Moore says. The addition houses the extensive holdings of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, and the renovated older section contains the research center’s staff offices, more archival storage, digital reproduction facilities, and exhibit space.
In the restored stately Main Reading Room, tall rounded-arch windows previously obscured by book stacks allow natural light in, and window coverings mute the harmful effects of sunshine on the light-sensitive materials stored within. “What’s great is now that the old bookcases are out, you get a lot of natural light,” said Liz Sargent, manager of the research center. “Now when you walk in you see it’s a grand room.”
The project also removed steel book stacks installed around 1940, and that required tearing out a segment of concrete ceiling to accommodate the five-level framework. Gensler reconstructed the demolished first-floor ceiling to allow for the exhibit space on the building’s intermediate level. Other improvements include UV glazing in the new archival wing and an HVAC system dedicated to the archival spaces that maintains a constant 60 degree Fahrenheit temperature and 40 percent humidity.
Preserving Houston’s heritage
EverGreene Architectural Arts of New York analyzed original paint colors, and the decorative walls and ceilings were repainted in colors closely matching the original intent. In addition, several Works Progress Administration murals hanging in the central rotunda were cleaned and historic light fixtures were re-lamped. Original furnishings, including large oak reading tables and chairs hand-carved with storybook motifs, were refinished and reinstalled.
“The results greatly exceeded the expectations of the Library Preservation Partners,” says Minnette B. Boesel, one of three founding members of the not-for-profit organization established at the behest of then-Mayor Bill White in 2006 to raise private funds for the work and offer guidance to the design team. “[The project] once again brings this magnificent structure back into the public realm and showcases it as one of Houston’s most important architectural civic assets.”
Key Design Highlights
- The entire electrical and HVAC systems were upgraded, and an HVAC system dedicated solely to the archival spaces maintains a constant 60 degree Fahrenheit temperature and 40 percent humidity.
- Original paint colors were analyzed and walls and ceilings were repainted in colors closely matching the original intent.
- Renovation is closely based on the original drawings produced in the 1920s by architects Cram & Ferguson.
- A new wing was added by Gensler to house the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, with a reading room on the first floor and high density stacks on the floors above.
Julia Ideson Library
Architect and designer Gensler
Client Julia Ideson Library Preservation Partners
What 75,000 square feet on three floors