Hacker Architects brought a brutal public library into the 21st century

The hardest part was the seismic upgrade to meet Salem’s new requirements for a building whose walls and windows were unsafe for an earthquake. “It has been [built] Prior to modern seismic engineering,” says Mark Tobin, KPFF structural engineer. “The heavier lift was an upgrade design to keep the building safe for occupants.”

An early analysis by the city favored placing tensile columns 30 feet below the stair, but this idea was scrapped in favor of shear walls that were poured around the original cast concrete. “We suggested the shear walls to really strengthen them and open them up from the inside,” says Corey Ray, Howard S. Wright’s senior supervisor. “And we can pour concrete to match what they have in place.”

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The team used shear walls on three sides, but made an exception for the eastern wall where a huge oak tree grew. “We had to take it out,” Ray says. “Instead, we stuck with the screwing method there.” This approach will resonate with architects from Hacker, a company known for its environmentally minded projects. “We create an idyllic partner with the landscape,” says David Keltner, Director of Design. “With the library, it was about how to make the trees across the street a part of the library.”

Located in a one-acre plaza alongside City Hall, the library has a suburban and office vibe. There’s the street, then the grass and the landscape, and the library is 50 feet away. Since the existing windows did not meet the seismic requirements, the architects replaced them and enlarged them to bring in more daylight and make the building transparent from the street.

They have turned an introvert into an extrovert. “We wanted to improve visual communication for people who are driving,” Keltner says. “[now] People can see what’s going on inside – it elevates that connection.”

The architects reworked the way patrons access the library, replacing the front door and beefing up the 1990s car park and tunnel entry. “You’d get out of your car in the parking lot, go to the sidewalk, and then a tunnel—it was a lonely harsh experience,” he says. “We removed the tunnel and created a landscape and yard where you can now walk, with benches and trees.”

Inside, they moved the reading areas from the center to the periphery and replaced 90-inch-high shelves with lower shelves. They moved youth services to the upper floor, placed the adult section in the middle level, and the staff below. And they removed two drawers and replaced them with another to clarify the rotation,

“You see it and you see where you’re going; it helps find the way and with the welcoming nature of the building,” says Laura Klinger, Hacker’s Project Architect.

Photo showing the interior of a library with curved windows and stacks

Although buildings from the 1970s are not known for their environmental performance, these architects embrace the carbon benefits of renovating heavy brutalist structures rather than demolishing them. “There is a lot of embodied energy, and ripping it off is not what needs to be done,” she says. “We need to make them more loving.”

Here, they succeeded—so much so that the Salem Private Library Foundation poured an additional $620,000 into the project, for five design improvements the architects proposed including removing concrete blocks on the west side to install windows, a new staircase, and a new garden entrance. Funds have also been earmarked for expanding the library’s teen scene section, as well as improving the Exploration Room, which contains hands-on interactive exhibits for children.

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