Perspectives in Architecture: Renovation activates history and culture at Auburn Avenue Research Library

Photos by Jonathan Hillyer

The July 25, 1921 opening of the Auburn Avenue Branch of the Carnegie Library gave African Americans access to an Atlanta public library nearly twenty years after the construction of the Carnegie Library downtown as the city’s first branch in 1902. One of more than 2,800 libraries built across the country with funding from American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), the red brick building at 333 Auburn Avenue housed the Negro History Collection consisting of books, magazines, newspapers, and scholarly journals by, for, and about African Americans. After this branch shuttered in 1959, the renamed Samuel W. Williams Collection on Black America moved to different locations until the 1994 construction of the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History at 101 Auburn Avenue.

The original Auburn Avenue branch of the Carnegie Library.

Popularity of the library collections and public programs and the 2008 Fulton County voter approval of the library bond referendum spurred the expansion and redesign of the Auburn Avenue Research Library in 2016 by the team of Atlanta-based J. W. Robinson & Associates and Durham, North Carolina-based The Freelon Group (now Perkins and Will). Although widely admired leaders of both architectural firms, Jeffrey Robinson, AIA, NOMA and Phillip Freelon, FAIA, NOMA, died in 2019, both men leave a design legacy by activating an impractical, yet significant building in collaboration with Project Lead Designer Kenneth Luker, AIA.

Metal exterior cladding added to the massive, brick entry creates elegant framing around a riveting, wall-mounted steel sculpture, From the Cabinet, by celebrated painter, sculpture, and mixed-media artist Radcliffe Bailey. Reconfiguring previous disjointed spaces around a warmly finished lobby with informative artifacts and an inviting, central stairway, the design team draws visitors upward from street level spaces in the building, including an auditorium, the small Children’s Gallery with the Roots of Rap exhibit through March 1st, and the spacious Cary-McPheeters Gallery with recent visual art honoring writer Toni Morrison, to the archival rooms and reading rooms on the third and fourth floors.

Artwork in the library celebrates African-American culture and figures, such as Mary Fields, also known as Stagecoach Mary, who became the first African-American female contracted mail carrier in 1885 at age 60. This special library of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System received the 2017 Award of Excellence from the Atlanta Urban Design Commission for Interior Design of Public Spaces, Urban Design & Public Art. With a noteworthy building design, exhibits, programming, and archives, the general public, students, and scholars will see the renovated Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History as an enriching destination to research and appreciate the history and culture of the Sweet Auburn community and peoples of African descent during Black History Month in February and throughout the year.

Listen to our latest INtown Insider podcast at this link to find out more about the Auburn Avenue Library renovation project. 

Melody L. Harclerode, FAIA promotes significant natural, historical, and cultural sites as a non-profit leader, architect, and writer.

 

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