Student Learning Commons added to main floor in 2014
The first free standing library at the University of Iowa was a long time coming. Growing from an original selection of fifty books that were sent from New York to Iowa City in 1855 by Amos Dean, first president of the University of Iowa (1855-1859), the collection has frequently exceeded the space available to house it. First kept in a cubicle in the Mechanics’ Academy (the first university building), the moved to Old Capitol, Old North Hall (where three-fourths of the volumes were lost in an 1897 fire), Schaeffer Hall, Macbride Hall, and finally the Old Armory, it was not even until additions to the new Main Library were completed in 1971 that there was enough room to accommodate the main collection in a single building. That building provided open stack shelving so students could have direct access to the books and take advantage of the “serendipitous nature” of research and learning, as head librarian Ralph Ellsworth (1943-1958) understood it. The Main Library now serves as the hub of a 4,000,000-volume library system with seven branches across campus and a generous lending policy that extends borrowing privileges to any Iowan with a card from a public library. In 2014 a large section of the main floor was redesigned as a Student Learning Commons with modern technology amenities, group study spaces, varied comfortable seating arrangements, and the Food for Thought Café. This modernization also added a new building entrance along the busy Madison Street façade.
The Main Library, set on a high platform, makes a statement (colorplate 6): the building is both a repository of knowledge and a monument to learning. Visitors approach the south façade via stairts that, along with the scale of the building and its massive slab rook, suggest an impenetrable fortress while at the same time announcing the value of what lies within and the need for protecting it.
The Main Library, set on a high platform, makes a statement (colorplate 6): the building is both a repository of knowledge and a monument to learning. Visitors approach the south façade via stairts that, along with the scale of the building and its massive slab rook, suggest an impenetrable fortress while at the same time announcing the value of what lies within and the need for protecting it. The vaguely medieval-looking design references multiple architectural sources while undermining them with a Modern sensibility. Just below the projecting roof, narrow vertical windows recall the defensive features of a fortified castle, while the powerful plane of the roof itself functions as the capstone. At the entrance, the spaces between the muscular brick piers turn what was solid in classical architecture (paired columns) into voids of tinted glass; and cantilevering at the corners highlights the strength of modern materials. Ornament in banned. The reference to columnar composition follows the New Formalism phase of Modernism that began in the 1950s with Edward Durrell Strone and which was developed further by others, including Max Abramovitz, who would later transform the Arts Campus.
The original 1951 Art-Deco-like central section of the north façade was reworked in 1971 to conform to the Modernistic aesthetic of the south elevation of the building. Characteristic of post-World War I American Moderne architecture with its streamlined elements, this original design had strong vertical components with limestone detailing above the central block, and geometric patterning in the decorative insets over the entrance windows. The Zigzag Moderne panels flanking the now-obscured central block were also censored, but the wings with their horizontally zigzagging window embrasures remain. A set of nine aluminum panels illustrating a humorous view of the history of education and libraries, commissioned from “Ding” Darling, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of the Des Moines Register, were removed from their mountings above the north façade entrance doors at the same time and are now displayed inside the building. The sleek aluminum stair railings and the staggered pattern of the cream-and-rose-colored linoleum tiles of the flooring in the original (north) section of the building are surviving remnants of this Moderne design.
Editor's Note: "Architecture 101" is an introduction to the architecture of the University of Iowa campus and some of the history of a handful of its buildings. New chapters will be added weekly beginning in mid-June and through the fall. All installments of Architecture 101 are excerpts from the second edition of the book, "The University of Iowa Guide to Campus Architecture," by John Beldon Scott and Rodney P. Lehnertz. The guide was published for the Office of the President by the University of Iowa Press and will be available for purchase in late summer/early fall 2016.