the niagara falls public library
The one that almost ended Paul Rudolph.
When the selection committee unanimously selected Paul Rudolph as the architect for Niagara Falls' new central library branch, expectations were understandably high. For decades, the city's population had been growing, and the desire for a "revitalized" downtown with bigger and better public services signaled the strength and resilience so valued in postwar America. At the same time, Paul Rudolph's career was also at its peak. Arguably the country's most influential modernist, the architect had just finished his tenure as chair of Yale's architecture department, and the building he designed for the school had opened in 1963 as the crowning achievement of a long, prolific career. But the years to come would prove difficult for Rudolph (Niagara Falls too). Over the next few decades as the architecture world turned away from his concrete aesthetic, Rudolph receded into the background with very few commissions and little authority. It was within this context that his controversial design for the Niagara Falls Public Library would emerge, harming both the architect and the city that commissioned it.
On paper, Rudolph's "temple of books" was the monument Niagara Falls (or rather its ambitious mayor- E. Dent Lakey) needed. As part of a larger urban renewal effort, the library (along with a new convention center by Philip Johnson and John Burgee) would help restore the city's once booming tourism industry (in theory, anyway). Slightly pyramidal in shape, the expressive concrete composition resembles a futuristic fortress, its sharp geometric angles intersecting in complicated configurations of wall, window, and roof. In true Rudolphian fashion, the concrete behemoth opens dramatically to reveal a bright and airy interior. Ribbons of clerestory windows cut through the heavy concrete walls, allowing beams of light to flood the carefully choreographed spaces. Most strikingly, a lofty, atrium-like reading room offers a cathedral-esque soar that underscores the sanctity of the stacks surrounding it.
When ground broke on the library in 1970, problems with Rudolph's dramatic design emerged almost immediately. Within the first two years, the library had already begun to leak when it rained, and by 1973, as construction entered its final phase, moisture was still appearing on the walls and ceilings. Angry and alarmed, city officials refused to accept the nearly completed building from the local contractor, Albert Elia Company. When the ribbon cutting went ahead as planned on March 4, 1974, it seemed no one was happy with the almost $5 million public project. No one was willing to take the blame for it either- not the contractor (who blamed Rudolph) or the architect. Soon lawyers and a new mayor intervened.
Though the library remained open to the public, the fact that no one accepted responsibility for the leaking building meant that the city bore initial responsibility for restoration (without help or input from Rudolph), and by the time these repairs were completed in 1978, the city had sued both the architect and the contractor for damages. Rudolph (who was apparently caught up in some other lawsuits at the time) ended up settling with the city for $1.12 million, but the public fallout from the incident proved much more damaging than any monetary loss. Critics used the library debacle as evidence that the architect put experimentation before details, and his general lack of apathy toward fixing the problems made it difficult to find new work. With a tarnished reputation and few American clients, Rudolph turned to Asia during the final years of his career.
Despite the quagmire that was the birth of the Earl W. Brydges Public Library in Niagara Falls, New York, Rudolph's concrete monolith has survived. Although its future is uncertain (today, the building needs extensive repairs), the library remains admired by many, and with the renewed interest in brutalism and Rudolph's work, the library could- once again- play a part in efforts to revitalize the area's tourism.
You can read more about Paul Rudolph here, here, and here.
Photograph at top:
G. E. Kidder Smith, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, CC-BY-NC 3.0.
10/4/2019 07:46:19 pm
That’s some story, and you’ve done a good job telling it.
10/7/2019 10:55:14 am
Thanks Kevin! And thank you again for reading.
10/7/2019 07:39:10 pm
The state of NY hasn’t been kind to Rudolph over the years. Hope this one survives🤞
10/9/2019 07:33:11 am
10/23/2019 10:42:56 pm
I had no idea that this magnificent design was beset with such problems leading to legal and repetitional problems for Rudolph. Thanks for this enlightening post. And I too hope the library (or at least the building) continues to survive.
11/5/2019 06:47:28 am
Thanks Matthew. Rudolph's work has not fared well lately, so I hope this one can be revived as well. Thank you so much for reading!
11/6/2019 02:29:29 am
Thanks. Not long after I wrote this comment, the Commonwealth of MA announced that part of Rudolf’s Government Service Center In Boston may be raised and bid for redevelopment, as I think you saw:
11/16/2019 04:13:06 pm
In case you haven’t yet seen it, here’s a petition to save the Hurley Building and the integrity of Rudolph’s Government Services Center in Boston:
10/11/2021 02:17:37 am
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