Patrons who endured cramped quarters and limited hours might disagree. But when it comes to the new Webber Park branch of the Hennepin County Library, the wait has paid off.
And what an endless delay it was: 17 years.
Seventeen years of landing on and then falling off priority lists. Seventeen years of study and debate over renovation of a crumbling building vs. wholesale demolition and new construction. Seventeen years of property disputes. Seventeen years of a neighborhood coping with two less-than-ideal facilities and, for one of those years during a significant budget crunch, no facility at all.
All that perseverance bore fruit. Not only because a library has finally sprouted along Victory Memorial Drive, but because the final product, which opened in May, is a jewel.
Designed by Mohammed Lawal of LSE Architects of Minneapolis, the Webber Park Library deftly balances residential scale and civic weightiness. Welcoming from all directions, the building takes full advantage of its parklike surroundings while providing a much-needed civic haven for the surrounding neighborhoods.
That’s a tall order for a single-story, 8,300-square-foot building. Lawal believes that citizen input, and plenty of it, made all the difference.
“We had a half-dozen community meetings over the course of a year,” he said. “Those meetings can be long, and daunting, and we had a lot of participation. People came to them, over and over, and over. I can’t tell you what it means, as an architect, to be able to come and listen to the community, and then try and bring those ideas together with your artistic flavor and programmatic values. I feel really good about that process.”
He should. It’s a beauty, inside and out.
Weighty stone, natural light
The exterior emphasizes natural materials, primarily handsome Lake Superior Green granite quarried in Isabella, Minn. The stone was treated with five different finishes — ranging from sort-of black to a deep green to a kind-of gray — and cut into 724 custom-cut panels. The pattern is both orderly (there are three basic vertical heights) and seemingly random (many horizontal widths), a great-looking architectural jigsaw puzzle.
“We wanted to represent some of the diversity and inclusiveness in Hennepin County by using different-size panels,” said Lawal.
The granite is pulled from the same quarry as the stone used for the nearby Victory Memorial Drive gateway monument, and its weightiness lends an air of solidity and permanence. Along with prodigious amounts of glass, the rest of the exterior is clad in overlapping, horizontally placed zinc panels; their current pale green patina will eventually mature into gray.
A roomy front porch acts as the building’s handshake, a welcoming gesture that extends the interior outward. It’s ringed by columns wrapped in warm Douglas fir. The porch’s ceiling appears to be made from the same material, but it’s not; it’s a durable (and cost-effective) metal product made to resemble Douglas fir. Low-lying planters — filled with low-lying greenery — also enlarge the building’s footprint.
The $10.5 million project is twice the size of its now-demolished predecessor, which was located a few blocks to the east. Along with a modest circulating collection of books and other materials, there are 23 public computers for internet access.
Plentiful, well-situated windows lure the outside in, and vice versa, flooding the double-height space with natural light. Lawal’s favorite spot is the children’s area, which is delineated by a brightly patterned carpet (its rectangles are a shoutout to the exterior stone panels) and framed by a north-facing, floor-to-ceiling window.
“The children can really see the full value of the parkway,” he said. “It’s all the tree canopies and their changing colors, and the inspiring awe of nature.”
The library’s vaguely Z-shaped floor plan follows a wide-open format, which allows the staff visual access to a lot of territory and also permits first-time users to immediately grasp the library’s various functions. It’s ringed by two small meeting rooms and one large, multipurpose community room. The building is served by a pair of entrances, one to Victory Memorial Drive, the other to a parking lot.
The interior’s muted color palette makes the modest space appear larger. Many of the white walls are ingeniously masking tightly seamed acoustical panels, and LSE senior interior designer Susan Jacobson drew in a variety of blues (including walls composed of rippled felt panels, another acoustical sleight of hand) to represent the nearby Mississippi River. The ceiling is the same wood-like metal panels used on the porch. Don’t miss the restrooms, where envy-inducing tiles introduce cheery bursts of color.
As with other Hennepin County library projects, site-specific art was commissioned. The two vestibules are anchored by whimsical enameled tile murals, a collaboration between St. Paul painter Ta-coumba T. Aiken and Minneapolis artist Christopheraaron Deanes. Minneapolis artist Michael Sweere fashioned colorful tin cookie and cracker canisters into an enchanting collagelike mosaic that presides over the reference desk.
A remnant from the previous library is the lovely oil portrait of the library’s and nearby park’s namesake, John Deere Webber. In the early 20th century, his parents, Mary and Charles Webber — he was grandson of tractor and farm implement manufacturer John Deere — donated the funds to build an earlier rendition of the library after their 10-year-old son’s death.
A prominent site
Next door, Lawal is hard at work on North Market, a 16,000-square-foot supermarket focusing on healthful, sustainable foods and operated by nonprofit Pillsbury United Communities. The project will also include a wellness center operated by North Memorial Health.
The $6.3 million project is a from-the-ground-up remake of a 59-year-old supermarket that has sat vacant for the past decade, a void keenly felt in one of the Twin Cities’ most challenging food deserts. The county purchased the site in 2008, with the plan that the library might replace it, but a faction held out for the parkway site next door. Three cheers for their tenacity.
“Ultimately, I believe the library got the better site,” said Lawal. “And now the neighborhood is getting a grocery store. Sometimes, better decisions are made in time.”
The library’s landscape design, by Jean Garbarini of Damon Farber in Minneapolis, takes full advantage of the prominent site, and then some.
Removing several houses — along with a cul de sac-ed spur of 45th Avenue N. that ran parallel to Victory Memorial Drive — gave the library breathing room and allowed for a grassy front yard that not only mimics the neighborhood’s well-kept lawns but also extends Memorial Drive’s dramatic emerald sweep.
To the east, Garbarini enlarged a stormwater infiltration depression into a serpentine dry creek, planting it with fragrant hyssop, ironweed and other pollinator-attracting perennials. The dry creek culminates in a circular terrace, a great-looking and comfortable outdoor gathering space.
Garbarini was also delighted by the neighborhood’s intellectual and emotional investment in the project.
“People were so excited and enthusiastic, and they were truly interested in making the best out of the site,” she said. “Hopefully it gets a lot of use.”
It is already. The county library system reports that the number of visits at Webber Park is up a staggering 780 percent over the previous (albeit cramped, temporary) facility, and circulation has risen 550 percent.
“I’m glad we took the time we had,” said Lawal. “We had one shot to get this right.”