When library trustees sought a new home for the Durham Public Library, they identified a 1920s Tudor Revival home set in lush gardens, sold to them by a local retired doctor. To win the project, SMP took a high-risk approach that involved proposing that part of the library addition be built in front of the old house on the spacious front lawn, with the courtyard that formed between as a decked over parking level. This would compensate for code compliance issues in the 1920s house, and address parking requirements for a library of this size. Although the selection committee thought we had lost it, they admired our willingness to look at all the angles and grasp the key issues. SMP was hired.


When we really dug into the design constraints of the site our client had purchased, it became even more daunting. Aside from the need to shoehorn parking on the site, there were added limitations of wetland setback, significant trees to be preserved and, just for fun, an abandoned cemetery in the middle of the lot. We added our own constraint of opening the building to an entry on the warmer south side to avoid icing, and the resulting buildable area essentially dictated the building shape.

To address the desired character of the building, SMP invited the larger community to evaluate collages we had prepared, representing a half-dozen ways of fitting up a library interior to produce a particular atmosphere or effect. What we drew out of the crowd was the appeal of the palette of materials, especially wood and iron, the light and airy spaces, and the juxtaposition of current clean design with something more evocative of a 19th century academic library. We now had all the pieces of the design puzzle to begin to formulate a whole.


The entire building composition was pulled together by a south-side porch. Inside the old house, we pulled up the second floor to create a double-height interior space that served as café, performance, periodicals, and book-sale area. In the children’s area, a volunteer had constructed a very large model of a gundalow, a 19th century sailing barge that appears on the town seal of Durham. We integrated the boat amidst a 3D representation of the Durham waterfront that children can play on and peek through. And, while seldom on an owner’s list of priorities, it's features like a courtyard that cause the users to fall in love with the building and make the project all seem worthwhile.