What will happen to Atlanta’s Central Library, an architecturally significant but undervalued building?

Some say the centerpiece of Fulton County and Atlanta’s public library system should leave the Marcel Breuer-designed building

Does the centerpiece of Fulton County and Atlanta’s public library system deserve better than the Marcel Breuer-designed Central Library? Could the existing building be renovated? If a new library is built, how much would it cost and what purpose would it serve? What role do libraries play in today’s society?

The library system’s new director, a historic preservationist, an architect, and the former politician who’s the biggest supporter of a new Central Library, discussed those issues last night inside the Central Library. The panel discussion was part of Creative Loafing and the Center for Civic Innovation’s “Social Studies,” a series of public discussions that look at issues facing Atlanta.

After a presentation on the library’s history and the events leading up to today by CCI’s Kyle Kessler, CL Editor-in-Chief Debbie Michaud moderated a wide-ranging talk about the library’s — and library system’s — future. 
Robb Pitts, who advocated for a “world-class” central facility as a Fulton County commissioner, pushed back against the idea of revisiting a bond package that was approved by voters in 2008, when he was in office. That package included building a new Central Library. Private funds would also have to be raised for the project.

Harclerode said the building, which opened to great fanfare in 1980, is “a world class building by a world-class architect. It tells a story in terms of Atlanta that we were trying to create a building that is significant in terms of style… At the time it was the most efficient library in the world.”

She said the building could be improved upon by making it more visible by the street and, if needed, adding more light. But she wondered what would happen if the library system decided to vacate the building, and whether the new owner would preserve it.  

Pitts admitted he was not a fan of the Brutalist building’s exterior but acknowledged it was architecturally significant. He said that voters had spoken at the polls when the referendum was approved and not following through on that promise was “politically dangerous.” Cities around the country have been building what he called “world-class libraries” and Atlanta needed to do the same to be competitive. The city needed a facility so large and beautiful that tourists would take photos in front of, and he claimed that building one could be done relatively affordably.

“This is a bold big city,” Pitts said, saying Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s design for the Mercedes-Benz stadium was an example of that thinking. His steadfast stance on building a much larger facility irked some members of the audience, many of whom were in the pro-preservation crowd. But he said that Atlanta needed to continue competing with other cities.

“I don’t view us as a second class or third class city,” Pitts said.

But Morley, who’s just two weeks into his new job and takes very long pauses before he speaks, stressed that the library’s sole purpose was to serve the community, not just serve as a grand building. And the way the system provides that service is changing.

“I think the future of libraries is not compelling people to come to this building but going to where people are,” Morley said, before referencing a Netflix-esque program that he launched in his previous job in Louisiana that allowed people to order books to be delivered on the same day.

He added: “Creating a gigantic library system in Downtown is not going to make us a better library system.”

That’s not to say the building itself is outdated. Morley, like many others in attendance, said he could not receive a cell service in the auditorium. The building’s boardroom can’t get a wireless signal.

Dean Baker, a historic preservationist and member of the Friends of Central Atlanta Library, a group that advocates for the building, reminded the crowd that “you’re never going to get Marcel Breuer to design another building, ever.”

He said when the facility opened it had many innovative features, including a café, a drive-through service station, and underground parking that could be reopened for patrons who are unable to use MARTA. But today, Baker says, the building is “understaffed, under-programmed, and under-maintained.” He wondered if a new Central Library would meet the same fate as the Breuer building — and in 10 years, we would be asking the same questions.

Next Wednesday, Morley will tell the Fulton County Commission it needs to move forward with issuing the next batch of bonds that voters approved in 2008 that would fund branch renovations and the design and construction of a new Central Library to replace the Breuer building. He said the bonds must be issued by the end of 2017. He said there might be an opportunity to revisit the issue about the Central Library but time is of the essence.

“The dilly-dallying from 2008 until now, it just can’t continue anymore,” Morley said. “We’re at a point where a decision needs to be made. “

The meeting is a recess meeting of the county commission and will be held at the Fulton County Government Center Assembly Hall, 141 Pryor Street SW. It starts at 10 a.m. The public is invited to participate. 

NOTE: This post has been altered to correct an error about the meeting of the Fulton County Commission where Morley will inform elected officials about the deadline to issue bonds and carry out projects. The address has also been corrected.