$43.3 million makeover and transformation at Main Library adds engagement, services, and public art

Since 1870, when the first downtown library was built, Cincinnatians have benefitted from a downtown main library that provided educational materials and has continually adapted to meet residents’ needs and tastes. The next chapter in the downtown branch’s evolution will culminate with the unveiling of renovations, which include a new North Building roof, the South Building energy-efficiency retrofit, skylight and elevator repairs, and redesigns of both exterior plazas.

Paula Brehm-Heeger, the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library’s director since 2018, speaks enthusiastically about the $43.4 million renovation to the downtown library. Turner Construction managed the renovation, and Champlin Architecture and Group 4 Architecture devised the plan.

“We developed the facilities master plan for the entire system in 2019 based on engagement with approximately 3,000 Hamilton County residents to learn what their priorities were for next-generation libraries,” she said. “Some locations were over a century old and weren’t handicap accessible.”

Wes BattocletteA panoramic view around the social staircase, which showcases the enhanced skylights that are part of its energy efficiency improvements. The current Eighth and Main downtown branch, which was opened in 1955 and was last renovated in the late 1980s, spans 540,000 sq. ft. Predictably, the building has shown its age, such as leaky skylights and periodic technical glitches that complicated patrons’ computer usage. Also, with a building that rises five stores above ground level, a relative rarity with flagship libraries, occasionally unreliable elevators proved problematic. Thus, correcting these infrastructure problems became a priority to create a welcoming, productive environment.

Enhanced wayfinding and aesthetics also represent essential areas of improvement. Brehm-Heeger said, “The building didn’t provide ideal vertical circulation. The latest renovation features a ‘social staircase’ that provides a central connection point with attractive, user-friendly stairs that makes each floor much more easily accessible.”

In addition to aesthetic upgrades, the original 1950s-vintage boilers that have kept patrons warm for generations have been replaced with an energy-efficient hot water heater and air-return system that will enable subsequent upgrades to solar panels and geothermal energy.

Wes BattocletteThe “Social Staircase” is a focal point of the interior renovations at the downtown library helps visitors find their way.The renovation was funded with 60% state funding and 40% from the library levy approved by taxpayers in 2018, which generated $19.6 per million annually for the library system. Brehm-Heeger noted that monies from the 2023 levy won’t be received by the Cincinnati and Hamilton County public libraries until 2025. She noted that the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t significantly slow construction, but it did require greater resourcefulness to fulfill supply-chain needs. And, although book-banning efforts in some pockets of the U.S. cause consternation, she said it has rallied support.

“Before COVID-19, the downtown library hosted approximately 850,000 annual visitors,” she said. “In the pandemic aftermath, visits have fallen to around half that. We’re hoping to bring it back to the 750-800,000 range. People realize the threats that book bans present, and increasingly appreciate the resource libraries are to communities.”

To support and engage the local entrepreneurial and small-business community, the library offers increased coworking and meeting space, with tablets available for onsite use.

“Entrepreneurship and tech are becoming increasingly important to our community, and the library is playing a role in supporting them,” she said.

Another amenity that Brehm-Heeger highlighted was the enhanced genealogy resources. With the burgeoning popularity of ancestry.com, 23 and Me, and other online entities that help discover more about our forebears, features such as the Catherine C. and Thomas E. Huenefeld Story Center will allow patrons to record and share oral histories that will allow younger and future generations to learn about their lives and legacies.

The library plazas are designed to be inviting gathering places, and public art provides a key focal point. Jen Lewin, a lighting-centric visual artist who’s completed installations for the BLINK festival, created Phronesis, a large-scale light sculpture that features numerous vertical pillars with color-changing hues that embody the range of emotions. In Greek, phronesis means “a type of wisdom and intelligence concerned with practical action.” What better way to translate the goal of a library: to inform and inspire.

Another public-art installation, the Due Date Wall, which was installed on the library’s north plaza, provides an homage to those ubiquitous old-school sheets on the front page of library volumes which reminded borrowers when books were due back. The wall contains 17 hidden references to key Cincinnati past events, an open invitation to history buffs.

The unveiling, which will occur this weekend, will include live music, food trucks, chalk art, events with UC and Xavier athletes and mascots, and more. Brehm-Heeger noted the library’s explicit goal to break the Guinness Book of World Records mark for the most library cards issued in a single day. The current best is 2,000, and the library will attempt to break it on Saturday.

This weekend represents a platinum opportunity to celebrate being a Cincinnatian: the Reds are home for the weekend, FC Cincinnati hosts a Saturday match, the American Sign Museum is celebrating expansion, and the downtown library is unveiling its transformation. Try to enjoy them all, and if you don’t possess a library card, helping Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library officially break a Guinness World Record provides the ideal opportunity to get one.
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Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.