John Kuhn: It’s time for a library befitting a college town

  • An artist’s conceptio shows a renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from next to the Amherst History Museum. COURTESY FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

Thursday, October 21, 2021

As an early associate of the Finegold Alexander Architects (FAA) team and former owner of Kuhn Riddle Architects, who prepared the “Accessibility Review and Recommendations,” I would like to weigh in on the proposed Jones Library project.

In 2012, a specialist from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) stated that the Jones was “one of the most dysfunctional libraries in the Commonwealth.” The MBLC funds expansion projects to existing libraries as long as the projects are “transformative” and prepare the library to meet the local community’s needs for the next 50 years. The MBLC has awarded Amherst close to $13.8 million for that very purpose.

Early programming work done by FAA and the Jones Trustees — using MBLC criteria and guidelines — determined that given current use and population, the Jones needed to expand to be 63,000 square feet versus the existing 48,000 squre feet. It is important to note that the MBLC will not fund a solely renovation project at the Jones.

There has never been any question about renovating and repurposing the 28,000 square feet of the original 1928 building — one of our town’s most important historic buildings. But adding an additional 14,000 square feet to the 1993 addition proved to be difficult. While the 1993 addition blends in nicely on the exterior, the interior is mostly a layout of small spaces, poor circulation and inconsistent sight lines.

What building this size needs seven stairways? How does a one story pyramidal skylight surrounded by two-story structures function efficiently in New England winters? How do you add onto such a structure — vertically or horizontally — without making matters worse?

The answer, after extensive study, was that the 1993 addition was not worth salvaging and an efficient three-story addition that could truly mesh with the original historic structure and accommodate the MBLC required square footage was the ideal solution. In other words, retain and renovate the 28,000 square feet of historic structure, demolish the 1993 addition and build a new, well-designed addition of 35,000 square feet.

While this may perplex some, there are times when tearing something down — especially if it is inefficient to begin with — allows for a more compact, economical and sustainable integration of old and new. This is particularly true when the final structure is to be fully accessible and sustainable.

FAA has done a beautiful job of blending the 1928 Jones building with a new addition behind it. On the exterior, the 1928 historic structure that we see from Amity Street will be retained and restored with an accessible front entrance. The addition complements the existing structure, yet also has an architectural strength of its own as seen from the north. The blending of the two structures creates a whole that is both cohesive and unified, yet continues to respect the beauty and integrity of the original building.

On the interior, the focus will be on restoring and repurposing the historic structure. Some areas — like the entry hall and stair — will be carefully restored. Other non-public areas will be renovated as public spaces so all can enjoy the fireplaces and fine wood paneling details. The entirety of the first and second floors of the 1928 building will mesh seamlessly into large light-filled public spaces for book collections and circulation.

This project will meet all of the standards established by the Massachusetts Historical Commission and create a library befitting of our college/university town. It will truly be a “transformative” project and one that is open to all.

In addition to qualifying for Massachusetts Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits, this project will also create a totally accessible building, as well as the most energy efficient and sustainable town-owned building in Amherst. But, most importantly, our town will have a state-of-the-art library befitting the town of Amherst and one that will benefit our entire regional population for decades to come.

Change is not easy. The opposition to the project claims we should “start over smart.” I would contend that starting over is not smart at all. In fact that very slogan discounts the efforts of all the dedicated individuals and committees who have worked tirelessly and in good faith for 10 years to bring us to this point. We started the elementary school project over and just kicked the can down the road for five years while sending tens of millions of dollars back to the commonwealth.

Please, let’s not do the same thing with the library. Vote “Yes” for the Jones Library.

John Kuhn lives in Amherst.