Walter Library: A Treasure Restored

By Mary Coons
Published in "Inventing Tomorrow" magazine

When the University's new high-tech library opened in 1924, architect Clarence Johnston called it “the fruition of years of planning, of research, of study by many minds to give the University a great building.” Nearly 80 years later, his pithy appraisal also characterizes a two-and-a-half-year, $63.4 million renovation of the campus landmark. In January 2002, Walter Library—a remarkable synthesis of old and new—reopened its doors to the University community. The many minds—and skilled hands—involved in this undertaking include University president Mark Yudof, the board of regents, University librarians, facilities management officials, faculty and staff, state legislators, architects, a general contractor, and workers from nearly 20 companies. From the project's beginning, those involved worked to maintain a balance between historical preservation and modernization. For example, says architect Drew Bjorklund, all lighting had to be stripped and replaced with new systems, so project designers scoured old photographs and documents for clues to the building's original appearance.

“Based on early photographs, we designed fixtures to complement the originals yet not duplicate them,” explains Bjorklund. Specialty fixtures were sized and lamped according to each room's requirements.

That meticulous care and aesthetic is reflected throughout Walter Library, a restored treasure that exalts the human spirit.

Materials, color, and lighting suffuse the building's interior with a warm, inviting glow. Even its most expansive spaces feel intimate and tranquil.

THE PUBLIC LIBRARY: The ornamental plaster ceiling in earth tones of terra cotta, blue, green, and beige, accentuated with gold leaf, complements the lobby walls of warm-toned Mankato Travertine limestone and the Tennessee Pink marble floors. Deep-hued Green Alps marble columns frame the entrance to the north-south corridor that leads to the IT dean's office and to the ADCS undergraduate computing lab. 

Restoration of the ornamental plaster ceiling with its octagonal recessed coffers accounted for most of the lobby work. Workers removed decades-old dust and soapy film that dulled the ornate ceiling and obscured other exquisite details.

Conrad Schmitt Studios (CSS) of New Berlin, Wisconsin, painstakingly restored the ceiling to its original beauty. Over a one-year period, CSS artisans spent more than 18,000 man-hours restoring the library's polychromatic ceilings and decorative plaster details at the cornice-line.

Wherever possible, workers repaired and repainted original plaster designs. Certain areas demanded more aggressive techniques—removal, recasting, and repainting—to achieve the desired results. Artists sat on scaffolding for hours at a time carefully applying color to the ceiling panels with delicate brush strokes. The skillful restoration makes it nearly impossible to detect panel “seams” or the sprinkler heads camouflaged inside plaster details.

Visitors will enjoy a pleasant stroll along the spacious east-west corridor that connects the main lobby to the building's entrance on Pleasant Street SE. Crews salvaged inch-thick rosy-beige stone panels from the original stack core floors and recycled them as cladding for the corridor walls. Glossy black marble accents, a fabric-covered arched white ceiling, and ambient lighting all add a touch of sleek sophistication to this high-tech zone.

Several DTC facilities—the Power Wall and computer laboratories for graphic design, graphics and visualization, and interoperability—are now located where the first-floor stacks once stood. Entrances to the interoperability lab and graphics design lab (formerly a library service area) retain their decorative bronze gate grilles, whose clever design incorporates fish and owl figures, symbols of Knowledge and Wisdom. New doors behind the gates replace the originals.

THE ARTHUR UPSON ROOM: Off the lobby to the north, a corridor leads to the Arthur Upson Room. Tucked away in the building's northeast corner, this quiet retreat is a memorial to the young poet who wrote lyrics to “Hail! Minnesota."

The Upson Room opened in February 1925 as a reading room for undergraduates. The room's dark, opulent furnishings and ornate interior reflected Upson's taste for Italian Renaissance furniture and rich decor.

Decades ago, the limestone mantle fireplace, framed by rich mahogany and cherry woodwork, radiated the warmth of a crackling fire on chilly winter days. Overhead, polished oak beams and ceiling panels are adorned with stenciled and hand-painted designs, including symbols of the zodiac. CSS artists preserved the original ceiling artwork and “in-filled” areas of loss. Winona Lighting restored the room's two wood-and-brass chandeliers, whose blue, gold, and burnt orange palette accents the ceiling artwork.

CSS repaired and restored the room's exquisitely painted wall surface of composition cardboard, which is lightly embossed to simulate leather and held in place by large brass buttons. New vinyl composition tile in olive brown and tan replicated the original British flooring pattern of dark and light squares, a style popular during the late 19th century.

OLD RESERVE READING ROOM: The original north reading room adjoining the Upson Room is now a spacious Academic and Distributed Computer Services (ADCS) computer laboratory open to all University undergraduates. The lab accommodates about 100 workstations.

Workers built a carpeted, raised sub-floor four inches over the room's original linotile flooring. Inside this space they threaded a complex network of data and power cables. This configuration will give technicians easy access to the wiring when changes are required.

Oak wainscoting and a splendid decorative plaster ceiling with honey-colored beams add ambience and charm to this high-tech space. In areas where the original decorative scheme had been painted over, workers removed layers of white paint one at a time to uncover the original color scheme of warm neutrals and pastels. Artists painstakingly experimented with blending, glazing, and application techniques until they achieved a six-color palette that matched the original in color, tone, value, hue, and application.

OTHER AREAS: The IT dean's office occupies its refurbished quarters in the library's south wing. The remainder of the first-floor is used for offices, conference rooms, and study lounges.

Between walls lined with sand-colored Kasota limestone, two monumental Tennessee marble staircases with turned marble balustrades ascend to the second floor. At the top of the stairs, Green Alps marble columns divide the atrium from the Great Hall, where a massive stone reference desk once guarded the entrance to the stacks. A smaller version of that desk, created with panels salvaged from the original, was moved to its current location in the atrium. Stone artisans from Europe modified the panels to fit the new design.

THE GREAT HALL: A jaw-dropping expanse of five skylights sweeps across the Great Hall ceiling (three smaller skylights overlook the atrium).

"Building codes have very strict rules regarding overhead glass,” says Bjorklund. “From a restoration standpoint, the preferred choice would have been to keep the originals, but to meet code compliance, they had to go. New lay-light panels were crafted to meet building code requirements and yet maintain the character of the original glass."

CSS artisans used Glasslam, a clear silicone/epoxy mixture, to bond patterned art glass to heat-strengthened glass. Faux caming was bonded to the underside (down side) of the glass panels, replicating the original caming patterns.

Ceilings of the Great Hall and atrium needed extensive plaster repairs and restorative painting. After removing loose paint and dirt, artisans washed the areas thoroughly and lightly sanded them to prepare for painting. They experimented with blending, glazing, and application techniques on sample boards until they could match the original look. Finally, they applied tinted primers and base paint.

To be furnished with soft, cushy chairs, the Great Hall is a stately yet inviting setting for study, relaxation, or contemplation. Wall sconces and table lamps provide task and ambient lighting.

The Great Hall is also the gateway to three magnificent reading rooms that house Science and Engineering Library facilities and the Learning Resources Center. Sculptured marble lunettes crown the doorways leading into the north and south rooms; their relief figures symbolize Industry, Agriculture, Science, Law, Power, and Wisdom. Ancient printers' marks and cameos of notable cultural and scientific figures are carved into the doorjambs.

NORTH READING ROOM: This spacious room boasts yet another beautifully restored ceiling. A trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") technique known as wood graining creates the illusion of varnished wood trim. The molded plaster ornamentation received a richly colored glaze to accent the detail. The room is furnished with large study tables, carrels, and new library shelving over an access floor. The reconditioned original oak tables are fitted with new task lighting and outlets for access to power and data.

SOUTH READING ROOM: For several decades this former reading room—same in size as the north reading room—was closed to the public and used as library office space. It's now the Learning Resources Center, where students and faculty access University Libraries' nonbook materials, primarily audio recordings and videotapes. This collection covers the scope of University instruction but emphasizes the humanities and social sciences.

Only the room's shell—its windows, double doors with oval windows, ornate ceiling, and wainscoted walls—maintains the feel of a traditional library. Furnishings include hexagonal carrels and one-person workstations where students search the Internet and use the library's video and audio resources.
The ornamental plaster ceiling alternates faux wooden beams in walnut tones with panels of deep aqua blue. A decorative painted border in warm pastel hues encircles the top of the walls. Along the south wall a series of decorative bronze grilles bearing the library's recurring owl motif conceals the room's heating system. Like other utilitarian fixtures throughout the library, they're designed to please the eye and blend into the decor.

MAIN READING ROOM: Measuring 52 feet wide by 200 feet long, the magnificent main reading room spans the second floor's east side. Resurrecting the beauty of this room was an architect's dream.

Here, more than in any other room, the eye is drawn upward—to the expanse of windows on three sides, to 16 massive bowl-shaped light fixtures suspended from the 22-foot-high ceiling, and to the ornate plaster ceiling itself. A pattern of squares—four recessed coffers per square—blankets the ceiling like an elegant heirloom quilt. Rendered in dominant hues of rose, aqua, antique ivory, and soft green, the ceiling is accentuated with gold leaf.

Built-in oak bookshelves five feet high line the room's perimeter. Above the bookshelves a border of stone cladding adds texture and visual interest. The room's original wooden tables, which collectively accommodate over 240 people, were removed, sanded, repaired, and reinstalled. Each table is equipped with new task lighting atop a wooden base containing data and power connections.

A small, elegant reference consultation room of polished wood and glass—part of the original decor—graces the west wall. After extensive research using original documents and old photos, the project architect designed a new reference desk, located along the opposite wall, which incorporates Johnston's original panel designs.

NEW WING: From the Great Hall, visitors can enter the new west wing, which houses the Digital Media Center (DMC). Charged with promoting the effective use of learning technologies, the DMC supports faculty who use these technologies to improve teaching and learning. Facilities include a classroom, audio lab, video editing area, media center, and offices.

Strictly speaking, Walter Library lacked a third floor until the new wing was added. The second-floor reading rooms, Great Hall, and atrium—which stand two stories tall—wrap around the third-floor addition, which is roughly one-fourth the size of the other floors. The area is reserved for library offices and workspaces.

The fourth and fifth floors house the DTC's administrative office and other digital technology tenants, including the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute and the Laboratory for Computational Science and Engineering.

The fourth-floor commons area offers a spectacular view of the downtown Minneapolis skyline to the west. Ceiling light fixtures add an art deco flavor to the space, which is sure to become a favorite gathering spot for DTC faculty, staff, and visitors. Just off the commons area are two conference rooms and a spacious scientific presentation center. The remainder of the floor contains offices and workstations.

The fifth floor includes a small commons area, a digital instruction classroom, digital laboratory, offices, and mechanical areas.

The once-drab basement level underwent an amazing transformation. Gone are the old typewriter workstations, the cramped archives area, and the old reserve room.

The Science and Engineering Library's main circulation/reserve desk area, which occupies the basement core, features new library stacks and comfortable study areas. Oak panels, carpeting, and recessed lighting add visual texture and warmth to the circulation desk area.

The north-south corridor still connects Walter Library to the University's tunnel system, but a gallery of high-tech facilities replaces the archives office and student computer lab along the passageway. DTC facilities here include a parallel/distributed computing laboratory, visualization and networking laboratories, a robotics laboratory, and offices for faculty and students.

The bulk of the Science and Engineering Library's collection is stored in the building's three underground floors—the basement and two lower levels. The subbasement consists of a core section of library stacks and small reading areas surrounded by a U-shaped ring of mechanical rooms. The foundation level contains library stacks and reading areas.

The project maintained Walter Library's historic exterior of Bedford limestone and brick masonry. For the west side, where the new wing replaces the stack core, architects designed a stone, brick, and brass exterior that blends beautifully with the original structure.

A colonnaded portico facing Northrop Mall marks the building's main entrance. Relief panels—surmounted over three doorways framed in carved stone—needed only a light touch-up. Like so many of the building's architectural details, the sculptured panels are richly symbolic, here representing various aspects of a liberal education. The center panel, which portrays elements from the Seal of the University, is supported by the youthful figures Light and Wisdom.

The right panel features Greek male and female shapes representing Power, Ambition, Study, Abundance, Inspiration, and the child Education.

On the left panel, a group of figures—the female figure Wisdom and male and female figures symbolizing Geography, History, Inspiration, Work, and Music—tend to a small child bearing the laurel leaves of Attainment.

The twin decorative bronze pedestal lamps mounted on the buttresses of the front steps were surveyed for damage, stripped, and cleaned. To complement the style of other mall buildings, each lamp received four new globes, and new brass handrails adorn the ornamental main doors.

Walter Library: A Treasure Restored (PDF 10.17 Mb)

Tell us about your next Project