Architecture & Design

By the mid-1950s, the “Main Library” (now Uris Library) was too small to contain the collections and spaces necessary for the growing needs of Cornell researchers. In 1957, the university invited a select list of architects to submit designs for a new research library that would need to accommodate two million books, special collections, central administrative offices, technical processing units, and of course, hundreds of researchers.

The library planning committee selected a modernistic, concrete slab design presented by Warner, Burns, Toan & Lunde. Charles H. Warner, Jr., a senior partner in the architectural firm, led the design team. Specifications were exacting and extensive. Plans called for what was then considered a massive, seven-story edifice on the Arts Quad, where Boardman Hall stood. The design emphasized straight lines, relying almost exclusively on horizontals and verticals, and displaying its thorough functionality inside and out. But it also paid homage to Boardman, razed in 1959, and to the university’s oldest buildings nearby on the west side of the Arts Quad, which it echoed with its modified mansard roof. The design was widely admired and as a result, the firm went on to receive commissions to build a number of other university libraries.

The architects distinguished public research spaces on the first floor from more private work areas and book stacks on the upper floors through decorative elements: rough-hewn stone pillars and retaining walls surrounding the first floor exterior. They also extended the footprint of the first floor into the Arts Quad, opening up views for researchers and providing larger reading rooms. Inside, they carried the grid-like design into ornamental features: vertical wooden bars surrounding the circulation desk; rows of thin, rectangular paneling; a honey-colored walnut lattice over light panels in the reference room ceiling; striped linoleum along its central floor (a hallway that came to be known as “Tiger Alley”). A sculpture court, another element of the building, disappeared when the adjoining Carl A. Kroch Library was built underground in 1992.

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