By Justin Reedy
In the middle of the neon signs and strip malls marking the urban landscape of Riverdale sits an island of peace and quiet made out of concrete and steel.
When Merrill Elam and her architecture firm designed the Riverdale Branch Library for Clayton County in 1995, that calming effect was just what they had in mind. Now the building is being recognized at the national level for its architectural significance.
The library is one of seven nationwide that has been selected for the 2003 Library Building Awards, which are jointly awarded by the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association to recognize excellence in the architectural design and planning of libraries. The county's Headquarters Library on Battle Creek Road near Jonesboro won the same award a few years ago.
The honor is one that all Clayton County residents can be proud of since the south side of Atlanta doesn't often get noticed, according to Mary Jo Gowing, the branch manager of the Riverdale library.
"Outside of the area, Clayton County doesn't get a lot of recognition," Gowing said. "For us to win several architectural awards, and for them to be libraries, is a real honor for the county."
"It's always nice for us to be recognized for our efforts," added Elam, who also worked on the design of the Headquarters Library and the Morrow Branch for Clayton County. "This little award is especially nice because it means the librarians and the architects have to agree on what they think is good. It would be easy for the librarians to get all tied up in function, or for the architects to get all tied up in aesthetics."
Elam's firm, the Atlanta-based Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, began designing the 12,000-square-foot branch in 1995, and construction started in the fall of 1996. The branch opened its doors in 1997, replacing a three-decade old library building at Ga. Highway 85 and Main Street in Riverdale.
By then, it was time for the tiny Riverdale Branch Library to be replaced, according to Carol Stewart, the director of library services for Clayton County.
"As the highway got wider, the library lost parking," Stewart said. "It didn't really have any possibility for expansion. It was a pretty library, but it was so busy all the time the inside was just beat up."
So Stewart and the county Library Board of Trustees worked with Elam's firm on the new library n that's when the idea for an urban refuge was developed.
"Because Riverdale is so urban, and so intense, there's so much noise and traffic, we had an idea that it would be a calming, serene place that would be practical and useable but give people a little break from all the chaos outside," explained Stewart.
The building offers a break from the stimulating environment common to its surroundings with its low-key concrete and steel exterior, subtle signs and walled garden. The exterior windows are large, triangular-shaped openings situated close to the roofline, reflecting a similar pattern found on the ceiling inside the building.
Once inside, visitors to the library are greeted by steel-beam style light fixtures that shine light up towards the ceiling, enhancing the natural ambient light coming in from the high windows. Custom-designed chairs, reading tables and a circulation desk also enhance the library's tranquil feel. The effects may not be the library's strongest selling point, but it's not lost on visitors.
Jonesboro resident Pat Crenshaw comes to the library because it has better computers and other facilities than the branch library in Jonesboro, but finds the interior of the Riverdale branch to be comforting.
"I like the lighting, and the windows to the outside," Crenshaw said. "Those are nice."
And though Riverdale resident Juan Torres visits the library because it's the closest one to his house, he also loves the environment there.
"It's very nice n the chairs, and the architecture," Torres said. "It's a relaxing place."
Stewart is glad that one of the county's libraries can have an effect like that on area residents.
"We wanted the library to make a statement to the community and just be very nice n and it is," she said. "Even if you don't like modern architecture, I think anyone can agree it is a lovely building."