Duluth’s modernist library faces existential crisis

PHOTO: Duluth Public Library Facebook page

PHOTO: Duluth Public Library Facebook page

Duluth newsIn November, we spoke about the unsettling news that the city of Duluth, Minnesota, faced with two unpleasant options — spend many millions to repair the Duluth Public Library, or many similar millions to demolish and replace the 35-year-old building.

A few weeks ago, the steering committee formed to make a recommendation announced it favored rebuilding the library, something that would cost about $34 million. (Estimates for necessary remodeling of the existing library, due to expensive heat system issues, is tagged at about $30 million).

It’s expensive both ways, and it’s clear that many close to the issue are enamored with the idea of a new building.

But I’d recommend anyone close to the issue, or interested in architecture for that matter, read this fascinating piece by John Ramos in the Duluth Reader. In addition to breaking down some of the issues related to this conundrum, he actually spoke with the original architect of Duluth’s “ore boat” library, Gunnar Birkerts, now 90. The transcript of their conversation is fascinating.

Here are a couple excerpts of that exchange:

On February 13, 2015, I called Gunnar Birkerts at his home in Massachusetts. My call was the first he had heard about anyone wanting to demolish the Duluth Public Library. “That is not good news,” he said, with a pronounced Latvian accent. “My building is getting torn down.”

At 90 years old, he spoke with the alertness of a man in full possession of his faculties. I explained that the consultant’s report had identified energy loss and lack of maintenance as big problems for the library. “Well, that is the problem with architecture,” he said. “Regardless of the period it was built, you have to maintain it—particularly Modern architecture, which was built with materials and techniques that were new.”

To the charge that people in Duluth just don’t like the design, Birkerts pointed out that a citizen committee approved the original design, just like the one now recommending its demolition.

… “I can see that there’s a set of mindsets that wouldn’t like it. That goes with all contemporary buildings that are not in any way rip-offs of something — that are created and built in a certain time. I fully recognize that there are people who will feel that way. If they gather strength, they will introduce a removal.

“Anyway,” he went on, “I would say that’s a little bit their loss, because my buildings have become a collector’s item around the country. That’s one of my favorites, too, the Duluth Library, because it has the metaphor and the symbolism and all these things that I like to work with, and so it’s sort of an expression of time and also my thinking at the time. So I’m sorry. […] If you live long, you see your buildings go, disappear before you do. It’s terrible!” He laughed.

Read the whole thing.

Ramos, and Birkerts himself, make some interesting arguments for the value of the Duluth library, points that auger for its survival even as prospect of a shiny new library dangles above the city’s head.


  1. It has this unobtrusively brooding sentience to it .

  2. The issue with the library has nothing to do with aesthetics.

    Unfortunately, like other of the few public buildings constructed during the Dark Ages in Duluth (New Central High School being another example,) there was a lot of corner cutting on construction to save costs. As a result, the energy use, mechanical, and the integrity of the building are all poor. In addition, the interior design is not well suited for its purpose now, if it ever was.

    I think most people actually like the look of the library, but since estimates of the cost of performing needed renovation to bring the building up to speed are within a couple million dollars of the cost of a complete tear down and rebuild, most people feel that rebuilding from scratch is the best choice and probably cheapest in the long run.

    Buildings from that period are a problem elsewhere. I don’t know if you remember the Federal Reserve Building in Minneapolis, which was to my mind an architectural masterpiece, but it had to be torn down due to a whole set of similar issues. The real classic of all this was the Federal Office Building in Binghamton, NY, which was condemned for health reasons and abandoned before being torn down only a couple of decades after it was built.

    The replacement of the library would also allow it to continue operation while the new building is built, which would preserve continuity in a service that is very important to many Duluthians, especially low income people.

    It is sad that this aesthetically ambitious building will be lost, but one important takeaway is that the temptation of front end savings is not always a smart choice for public projects, since it can lead to higher costs later. Penny wise and pound foolish is the classic expression.

  3. Gerald S.,
    Did you read my article? I talk about Birkerts’s Federal Reserve Building, which didn’t get torn down, but remodeled. Today it is open.

    If you have proof of corner-cutting on costs at the library, please tell me. I have heard over and over again that the library was built with shoddy construction techniques (and I will be meeting with the city facilities manager next week to discuss just that point), but the consultants themselves said that if all the required updates were done, the library would “reset” and be good for another 45 years. To me, that indicates the problems are due to lack of maintenance, not defects in the building itself. Certainly, the building will experience energy loss if all the insulation is compromised.

    I know plenty of people who like the look of the library, but they are not nearly as loud and vehement as those who dislike it. If you read my article, three city councilors wanted to tear it down for purely aesthetic reasons before the consultants were even hired.

    The whole thing about the interior design being unsuited for modern needs, well, I don’t see it. What are modern needs? Lots and lots of cable and electrical lines, as well as computer work stations. How is the library unsuited for that? There are plenty of smart people around who know how to remodel stuff. They just have to set their minds to it.

    Penny wise and pound foolish is the classic expression, but it doesn’t fit this case. The city has been pound stupid for 35 years by never setting aside a penny for capital costs at the library, and now it would like to reward its own irresponsible behavior by giving itself a new library. To me, that is the height of poor decision-making.

  4. The city has been negligent in maintaining practically everything over the 50 years of economic collapse it is just recovering from. Streets, public buildings, parks and recreational facilities, and schools have all been subject to “deferred maintenance” as the tax base collapsed and federal and state aid dried up. The library and New Central seem to be buildings that were especially vulnerable to damage by that, and have always been characterized as having construction that made them more vulnerable, including most recently by the firms that undertook the estimates of costs of repairing the library. I am certain that almost everything can be salvaged, given enough money, but question the wisdom of that course in a building the public wants and needs to keep operating.

    I do not share the opinion that the exterior of the library is not interesting aesthetically, nor do I feel that everything downtown has to conform with the architecture from the city’s golden age. Before the addition of Amzoil Arena, the library actually fit well with the DECC, but the sightlines for that are now obscured by the new addition.

    However, the interior of the library seems less successful to me. The interior is very dark, something that is worsened by the design of the stack placement, which occupies much of the space that has natural light. The building has always seemed to me to be uninviting for visitors and to encourage quick in and out visits. That obviously is an opinion, but is one shared by many people, apparently including council members. Again I agree that it could be remodeled, that the utilities could be updated, that the design could be renovated, that windows and insulation could be changed, but I do wonder about the cost and the downtime involved, and am skeptical about operating costs and ongoing upkeep and whether the result would be totally successful.

    Regardless of how we got here, it does not seem sensible to me to spend 90% as much to rebuild the existing building, as well as to close the building for months if not years, and still be left with likely future higher costs of operation and maintenance. We could discuss whether we need a library — I would say we do — and what the future of libraries will be, but on pure dollars and cents replacing seems more sensible than rebuilding.

    Following the course of the Federal Reserve and rebuilding elsewhere while allowing either private or public developers to do the extensive reworking of the library building while it stands vacant seems to be the logical course to me.

    As far as the city “rewarding itself with a new library,” it is of course true that those who made the decisions you characterize as “pound stupid” are no longer those around to make the new decisions. The choice seems to be to have a functional library and repurpose the existing one either publicly or privately, or to spend the same amount of money to close the library for a couple of years and still have a building that may have problems and be less well suited to its purpose. The decisions of the past, both any original faults in construction or years of neglect, are something we have to deal with, not something we can change.

    I sympathize with the desire to preserve an architectural experiment that is at worst interesting and at best pleasing, but would argue that from a functional point of view, keeping the building open as our main library seems to be the less sensible approach.

  5. Your explanation, like the explanations of everyone who wants to rip the place down, drifts further and further from reality each time you speak. In your first comment, you said “the cost of performing needed renovation to bring the building up to speed are within a couple million dollars of the cost of a complete tear down and rebuild.” By the time you comment again, the couple million dollars has become “the same amount of money” and the library would have to close for “a couple of years.” Is the idea of building a new library such a dream that the truth becomes unimportant? In Duluth, yes. On this blog, I would have hoped not.

    Here are the facts:

    The estimate for a full renovation is $30,655,000. The estimate for building a new building of similar size is $34,700,000. The difference between these options–$4.045 million–is not a small number, but to hear people talk, you’d think it was nickels on the street. You already rounded it down to zero.

    There are other options. The cost of a partial renovation is $27,855,000, or $6.845 million less than a full rebuild. The cost to bring the building up to code only is $15 million, or $19.7 million cheaper than the dream.

    The down time of any remodeling option would be negligible, not the couple of years you mysteriously claim. The consultants included the cost of temporary facilities in their estimates.

    One of my biggest problems with this whole situation is that the financial value assigned to preserving a fine example of Modernist architecture, built by one of the biggest names in the field, is nothing. Zero. Nobody thinks the library, as an example of architecture, is worth anything. Given that the city is moving mountains to restore the crumbling NorShor Theatre a few blocks down the street, with its derivative, unoriginal architecture, I find this complete dismissal of the library’s architecture astonishing.

    • You apparently didn’t bother to read what I said.

      The cost difference is not negligible in these price ranges, I agree. However, I remain concerned that ongoing operation costs will remain significantly higher for the existing library, and concerned about the functionality of the building as a library, a concern shared by many others. I am also concerned that the costs of a total renovation may change quite significantly as the project progresses and more issues come to light, something which is not at all uncommon in these kind of projects. A 12% cost overrun would more than eat the anticipated savings from renovation, regardless of whether you use green ink or black.

      Preservation of the building as a library is not necessary for preservation of the building. Old Central is being used as an office building, the Depot as a museum and performance center, Sacred Heart as a music center. It sounds like you value creativity highly. Be creative.

      I have not heard anyone say the library must be torn down, and in fact if a new library is built it will undoubtedly be built on a different site so that this one can continue to operate during the building. The city will then be very eager to find a buyer at a reasonable price. Undoubtedly the calculations that city is operating under anticipate the offset of selling the building to cover the difference in cost between a new building and the renovation, and then some.

      Instead of spending time and energy in a futile effort to force the city to continue operating the building as a library, find another use. That is what happened at the Federal Reserve, and at thousands of other buildings. Do it here. Find the value. If you want to preserve the building, an idea I endorse, don’t demand that someone else do it. If you value that building, do it yourself.

      • I already found the value. It’s a library. I’m surprised you can’t see that.

        • Unfortunately, there is near uniform agreement that it doesn’t work very well as one. The desire for change is not due to objections to how it looks, but rather to how it works.

          • I’ve never had a problem with how it works, and I use it more than 99 percent of the population. The “near uniform agreement” comes from people salivating for a new building.

          • I stand corrected. Near uniform agreement, except for John Ramos.

          • “…except for John Ramos, who has put more work into researching the issue than anyone else, including the consultants.”

          • “…while the sheep-like populace giggles happily and raises a dreamy thumbs-up when asked if they want to drop another $35 million onto the city’s $200 million debt load…”

          • “…which wouldn’t even be necessary if the library had been maintained properly…”

          • “…and the new library won’t be maintained properly either, because there’s no money for it…”

          • “…because we have all this debt…”

  6. An intangible asset that adds key municipal depth and whose lines are just beginning to mature . Plus , there’s a pair , so figure on the innate comparison dynamic translating into tourist dollars being spent along a pilgrimage trail .

  7. “…because we have all this debt…”

  8. I have a plan for renovating the existing library in a much more affordable fashion than any option so far proposed. Would you like to hear it?

  9. Task forces are useful in some ways, but in other ways they can hurt the city, because they only focus on one small aspect of the city, without taking the broader picture into account. If you put together five task forces to focus on five different buildings, each one would come up with a lavish, expensive solution for their particular building–because that would be best for that building. But when you add all five expensive solutions together, it becomes problematic for the city to fund them all. We saw this happen with the aquarium bailouts–a task force determined that the bailouts would be best for the aquarium, but they hurt the city. Now we’re seeing it with the library. A task force has determined (surprise, surprise) that the most expensive possible option would be best for the library. In my opinion, however, this option is definitely not in the city’s best interest.

    There are many ways we could have a nice library with adequate services at a much lower price tag than any option so far proposed. I am working on the details of this plan now, and I will publish it sometime in the future. And you know what? It will be totally ignored by the city and its citizens, because they WANT A NEW LIBRARY. As Gerald’s numerous made-up facts illustrate, people will say just about anything to get what they want.

  10. John Ramos says

    In an update on this issue, I have exposed the cynical behind-the-scenes machinations by which the Ness Administration influenced the consultants’ report to lead the sheep-like populace to the decision to build a new library here..

    And I have exposed the fallacies and deception in the report itself here.

    Face with the unwelcome truth, the silence of Duluthians has been deafening.

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