A Grand Renovation of the Library at Lehigh U. Preserves Tradition

Linderman Rotunda
The 1878 rotunda in Linderman Library at Lehigh University has gotten a stunning renovation, along with the rest of the building. See a slideshow featuring more pictures of the library renovation. (Photograph by Barry Halkin)

This year’s architecture issue wasn’t like that of past years in a significant way: It did not have profiles of recently built or renovated buildings. In past issues, we had written about, for example, new athletic facilities, innovative science buildings, and an art museum on stilts.

Had this year’s issue followed past formats, it would have surely featured Lehigh University’s renovated Linderman Library, which reopened last year. The original library, a rotunda, was designed by Philadelphia architect Addison Hutton and built in 1878 for $100,000. (Railroad tycoon Asa Packer gave $500,000 for the library, $400,000 of which went to books.) In a booklet commemorating the renovation, Elizabeth Shimer Bowers writes that Linderman “was one of the first American libraries to have specially designed areas for staff, collections, and readers.” The original building was made of iron, with white-tile walls that would help amplify the luminance from the gas lights. The top of the rotunda features a hand-painted stained-glass window.

In 1929, the library got an addition that partially wrapped around the original rotunda, which included a stack core and a large reading room, with paneled and carved dark oak walls.

When the renovation was being planned, Lehigh officials asked the students for input. Much has been made recently of what students want in library designs—what attracts today’s students, who have a thousand distractions, and what keeps them in a temple for books, when electronic media make remote learning possible. Barbara Fister, the library director at Gustavus Adolphus College, recently said that one of her colleagues asked students what they wanted in a library. “They tended toward the traditional, with an affinity for dark woodwork, study tables with lamps, and lots of books,” she wrote.

At Lehigh, the sentiment was the same: preserve tradition, yet make the building work for modern users. The woodwork and detailing has been brought back to its original luster. MGA Architects, from Philadelphia, added a glass wall between the 1878 library and the 1929 addition, which allows people to see the old library as they walk in. In the reading room, tables with task lighting and outlets for laptops were added. Visitors can find a cafe on the lower level, along with a gallery.

One challenge facing the architects was making newer and older parts of the building, with floors set at different heights, work together. The architects rebuilt a corridor in the middle of the building that helped resolve the differences.

See more of the renovation—including before and after pictures—in a slideshow. —Scott Carlson

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