Atlanta Fulton County Central Library

Added by jon buono, last update: March 13, 2017, 11:25 am

Atlanta Fulton County Central Library
Front elevation viewed from Forsyth Street (2011 ©️ Jon Buono)
One Margaret Mitchell Square
Atlanta, GA 30303
United States
33° 45' 27.7956" N, 84° 23' 18.3336" W
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Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Education (EDC)
Secondary classification:
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):


History of Building/Site
Original Brief:

The commission for the building arguably began with the strained conditions of Atlanta’s library system in the 1960s. As with many US metropolitan areas, rapid population growth following WWII surpassed the capacity and function of municipal services which remained largely unimproved since before the 1940s. In January 1968, Carlton Rochell assumed the post of Atlanta Library Director. Rochell, a native of Tennessee, became a leader in the advancement of library systems across the American South. Prior to Atlanta, he served 5 years in Anniston, Alabama where he successfully merged and desegregated the city and county systems.

Rochell’s hiring had followed a 1964 assessment of the Atlanta system by Joseph Wheeler, an authority on public library operations. Wheeler had identified many deficiencies in services as compared to similar municipalities. Rochell carried these findings further and suggested an inventory gap of approximately half a million volumes and advocated for establishing both a children’s program and an audio/visual collection. Momentum gained for an update to the Atlanta library system and modernization of the central repository. In anticipation of expansion, the Library Board successfully purchased the remaining parcels on the city block with the intent to increase the present facility from 80,000SF to 200,000 SF.

Records suggest that Rochell was attuned to the discourse of modern architecture in the 1960s. Through his leadership the Library Board solicited the interest of multiple architects in New York, including Paul Rudolph, but ultimately selected Breuer in 1969. The commission was to plan and design an entirely new building for 1,000 users and 1 million volumes, based on an ambitious 275-page program.

It should be noted that this was not Breuer’s first contact with the city of Atlanta. In 1946, shortly after his emigration to the United States from Germany, Breuer was a participant in a design competition for a “Realistic House in Georgia” sponsored by Rich’s Department Store and the magazine “Progressive Architecture”. Seven years later, he visited the city as a keynote speaker for a modern design lecture series, created by the Atlanta Vassar Club and honoring his design of the college’s Ferry House dormitory.

Despite the 1969 selection did not advance due to local indecision on whether the new facility should be constructed at the current library site or a new site. At some point later in 1970, Breuer’s office was apparently released to prepare a schematic design for redevelopment of the existing library site. The submission, made March 1971, established the fundamental concepts for the library as ultimately built. The proposal accompanied an estimate of $15.2 million and a 2 – ½ year construction duration. The Library Board quickly presented the design concept to the public and it was warmly reviewed by popular columnist Celestine Sibley in an Atlanta Journal Constitution Magazine article the following month.

Later in 1971, Atlanta businessman and philanthropist Robert Woodruff donated to the city a 75,000 SF parcel of properties he had purchased on Peachtree Street between Auburn and Edgewood Avenues. This prospect lead to a requested submission for an alternative schematic design (referred to as the Five Points site) and submitted by Breuer’s office (in collaboration with local architects Stevens & Wilkinson) in December 1971. The course of official decisions that followed submission of the two proposals is currently unknown, but the project effectively stalled. The Woodruff land donation did proceed to be developed as Central City Park (current day Woodruff Park), opening in 1973.

A significant project delay was also due to a dispute between the autonomous Library Board and city government over the bond referendum. Although a public vote was initially scheduled for the spring of 1972, successful passage for the $18.9 million library improvement bond was delayed until 1975. Breuer’s contract for construction design services lingered through the city’s procurement process until May of 1976. Breuer’s design development submission was ultimately submitted in July.

Breuer had initially undertaken the project in collaboration with design partner Hamilton Smith. Smith was one of Breuer’s first partners, having gained the position in 1964 during his leadership of the Whitney Museum project. The timing of the Atlanta project delays coincided with Breuer’s declining health and substantial retirement from practice in 1976. Although Breuer was kept abreast of all his ongoing projects, Smith’s responsibility in executing the Atlanta library design concept cannot be underestimated.

Although Atlanta-based Stevens and Wilkinson took responsibility for the construction documents, Breuer’s office remained closely involved in the development of project details, most notably leading the design for the custom pre-cast concrete façade panels. Following commence of construction, members of Breuer’s office made routine visits to Atlanta to monitor the activity and progress on site.

Due to his health, Breuer was unable to attend the building’s dedication ceremony on May 25, 1980, and he died a year later on July 1, 1981 at the age of 81.

Dates: Commission / Completion:1971: Concept designs for Forsyth Street and alternate Peachtree Street sites; 1976: Schematic Design and Design Development for Forsyth Street site; 1977: Construction begins October; 1980: Completion in May
Architectural and other Designer(s): Marcel Breuer and Hamilton Smith with Associates Carl Stein and Frank Richlan, Architects; Stevens and Wilkinson, Associate Architect and Consulting Engineers; Peter George Associates Inc., Acoustical Engineer; Donald Bliss, Lighting Designer; Original Movable Furnishings, HOK/Jenkins-Fleming, Inc.
Others associated with Building/Site: Carlton Rochell, Library Director 1968-1976; Ella G. Yates, Library Director 1976-1986; George Hyman Construction Company and Ozanne Company, General Contractors
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): 1990: Installation of "Wisdom Bridge" sculpture (Richard Hunt, artist) at entrance plaza. mid-1990s: Closure of indoor cafe and outdoor seating terrace (entrance on Carnegie Way). dates-unknown: Closures of ground floor gift shop (designed by Breuer's Office), "Children's Entrance" on Williams Street, and drive-through book service. 2002: Interior renovation, installation of new carpet and paint finishes, repairs to entrance plaza waterproofing, repair of water damage to sub-grade auditorium, modification of entrance plaza grading and handrails for ADA access.
Current Use: Central Library & Library System Headquarters
Current Condition: Good
General Description:

The Atlanta Fulton County Central Library is the main library and central headquarters of a combined city-county library system. The building occupies an entire urban block within downtown Atlanta, adjacent to the Fairlie Poplar Historic District. The library occupies a sloping site and has a terraced pedestrian entrance on its east elevation at Forsyth Street with vehicular service entrance on Fairlie Street. The rectangular building includes 10 stories, two of which are below grade.

The building section recalls grand civic libraries in Boston and Paris in its organization according to a "piano nobile". The open ground floor was originally programmed for circulation and general customer services, while the main reading rooms exist above the street level entrance and are accessed by a side northern staircase. Once ascended, occupants arrive at an expansive three-level volume of reading levels and book stacks, which are visually and vertically connected via a central monumental staircase.

Currently, the building retains the majority of its original programmatic layout, including: Lower level- Children’s Department, Art Gallery, Auditorium; First floor- Circulation & Customer Service; Second through Fourth floors- Book Stacks and Reading Rooms; Fifth floor- Special Collections, Offices, and Exterior Terrace; and Sixth through Eight Floors- Administration and Central Repository.

The library was conceived at a period in facility design which prioritized four factors: storage capacity for volumes ranging in the millions, publicly-accessible stacks, extensive climatic control systems, and restrictive lighting criteria to minimize UV damage to collections. The building expresses these design factors in it’s three-level storage facility, large floor plates, high-bay mechanical loft, and the controlled use of natural lighting.

The building’s division of levels is revealed at the exterior through a pattern of large-scale concrete façade panels which span the 15-foot floor heights. The irregularity of the individual floor plates is also expressed through setbacks and cantilevers which alternate at each elevation. The resulting geometric massing is monumental, and yet responsive to the pedestrian-scale within the dense urban site.

The expansive building interior was achieved by a robust structural system allowing for large unobstructed floor plates. The interior, and in particular the multi-level reading room, is animated by the introduction of natural light at strategic locations. A wide multi-story window at the second and third floor levels is located on the east exposure. Light from this elevation intersects illumination from four circular skylights, directly above the monumental staircase, which provide light from the upper roof terrace.

Construction Period:

Construction of the 245,000 SF library was executed by Washington D.C.-based George Hyman Construction Company (founded 1906) and the Ozanne Company – one of the oldest African-American owned construction companies in the country. The construction contract was notably completed ahead of schedule and under budget. These positive conditions allowed for immediate construction of the seventh and eight floor levels, which were originally engineered for erection in a later phase.

In the early months of 1977, Atlanta’s existing 1902 library building and its 1950 addition were emptied of their collections. Demolition of those buildings and site preparation began in March. Sitework included extensive excavation to accommodate lower level parking, a sub-grade 300-seat theater, and structural footings to accommodate the substantial steel structural system.

Breuer’s office had worked in partnership with local Atlanta Firm Stevens and Wilkinson to produce both the architectural and engineering construction documents for the project, however the structural engineer of record has not been identified through research to date. Breuer’s office maintained responsibility for the majority of visible interior details in the project including custom millwork, handrails, hardware, wall finishes, and furniture - most notably for the children’s reading room. Notable building innovations included a computerized catalog system, automated compact shelving, AV listening booths, and a sub-level theater.

The building opening and dedication occurred on May 25, 1980, presided by Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson; Mary Lu Mitchell, Chairman of Library Board of Trustees; and Ella G. Yates, who assumed the Library Director position in 1976.

Original Physical Context:

The site of the the Atlanta Fulton County Central Library is located within the northeast quadrant of the 10-acre Fairlie Poplar Historic District. As defined by the National Register of Historic Places, the district represents Atlanta's historic central business district and includes the largest concentration of commercial and office buildings in Atlanta from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Individually, the buildings represent some of the city's finest late Victorian and early 20th-century commercial buildings, and range from storefront commercial buildings to skyscrapers.

The site of the current library was also the site of the city’s 1902 library building, designed by New York architects Ackerman and Ross, and the donation of American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. For the next sixty years, the site continued as the center of operations for a growing municipal library system, including an addition constructed in 1950 and multiple renovation campaigns. The determination to replace the existing facility in 1969, prompted preservation interests for the original 1902 building. In response to an ad-hoc committee of concerned citizens including modern architect Joseph Amisano, city historian Franklin Garrett, and Secretary of State Ben Fortson, the exterior façade of white Georgia marble columns, arches, and frieze were carefully dismantled and committed to storage for future use. The materials were eventually re-erected as a free-standing architectural monument in advance of the the 1996 Olympics. Referred to as the “Carnegie Education Pavilion”, the monument is located in Hardy Ivy Park and was designed by architect Henri Jova.

Technical Evaluation:

The Atlanta Fulton County Central Library displays a degree of structural sophistication and innovation common to work throughout Breuer’s career. Both the scale and flexibility of the building layout are attributed to a steel structural system which provides the 30’ by 45’ primary column bays. The system was additionally engineered for 15-foot floor to floor spans of the public floor levels.

By the 1960s, Breuer was internationally regarded as a pioneer in the use of concrete construction. Within the course of Breuer’s career, the Atlanta project is particularly significant for its novel use of a pre-cast concrete façade. Although the use of exterior stone veneer was a common treatment among Breuer’s civic designs, multiple conditions in the library project prompted a uniquely engineered exterior system. Foremost, the precast panels yielded a far more structurally efficient assembly and eliminated the need of back-up walls to anchor masonry veneer. But additional innovations and economies were achieved through advanced manufacturing techniques at an off-site production facility. Sizes for the reinforced panels were maximized so that the exterior composition of panels would directly reflect the geometric arrangement of floor levels. Pre-casting also allowed production of complex, three-dimensional structural shapes which were not feasible in stone. Notably the many cubic angles of the exterior were manufactured as individual units to eliminate the presence of corner joints. Compound molds were also used to achieve the continuous splayed jambs throughout the building’s large scale windows. Following completion, the project received a special recognition from the American Prestressed Concrete Institute.

Breuer’s embrace of the material carried with it a sensitivity to the immediate perception of it’s surface. As quoted in a 1973 publication, he stated “the greatest esthetic design potential in concrete is found through interrupting the plane in such a way that sunlight and shadow will enhance its form, while through changing exposure a building will appear differently at various moments of the day.” In Atlanta, the scale of the façade panels was softened through the texture of a surface treatment. The panel formwork was designed with a diagonal pattern of narrow ribs across each exterior plane. After being released from the forms, the hardened concrete ribs were meticulously bush-hammered by hand to achieve the rough, irregular surface which provides such visual contrast to the scale and regularity of the panel geometry.


The Atlanta Fulton County Central Library represents one of the city's largest investments in an educational or cultural facility in the 20th century. The facility's funding resulted from a popular campaign to pass a tax referendum to improve the public accessibility and services of the city's main library. In addition, the building represents the expansion of civic facilities during a significant period of city governance.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
The Atlanta Fulton County Central Library is notable not only as the most significant project of Breuer’s late career, but also as an evolution in his twenty-year exploration of the library building typology. Throughout those years, Breuer produced designs for six library projects. His experimentation with the programme was first realized in the design for the public library in Grosse Pointe, Michigan (1951-52). In that project and others to follow throughout the 1960s (Hunter College-1960, St. John’s University-1966) his design approach was defined by relatively simple schemes of rectangular forms. The exterior appearances, while suitably scaled for their sites, belied complex and expressive structural systems devised to provide expansive reading rooms with minimal intrusion of columns. The projects were also noted for their experimentation in modulating natural light with large screening systems, clerestories, and skylights. The Atlanta project – the largest among Breuer’s libraries – was a bold departure from the low-slung, box-like compositions that defined his earlier projects. Breuer and his team’s attention to the volumetric experience of a reading room however, remained constant. The requisite scale of the Atlanta project prompted a complex and decisively urban composition of circulation and secondary spaces which sets it apart from the other work in Breuer portfolio. The refinement of the building programme, along with the resulting composition, may be regarded as a unique resolution of his library designs with the urban form-making pioneered in the Whitney Museum (1966). And because the building occupies a full city block versus the Whitney’s corner site, the sculptural concepts could be more fully realized.

The commission and design of the Atlanta Fulton County Central Library coincided with a national focus on the status of American libraries. The National Advisory Commission on Libraries (NACL), appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, was charged with examining libraries nationwide and determining the role of federal support for the future. It was recommended that a National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS) be established for the purpose of long-range planning. This commission was created in 1970 with the goal to "eventually provide every individual in the United States with equal opportunity of access to that part of the total information resource which will satisfy the individual’s educational, working, cultural and leisure-time needs and interests, regardless of the individual’s location, social or physical condition of level of intellectual achievement."

General Assessment:
Text references:

"100 Years of Library Service." 100 Years of Library Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 July 2016. .
"Look Back ... to a Change of Service at Anniston Airport, 1991." The Anniston Star. N.p., 31 Mar. 1991. Web. 13 July 2016. .
"Atlanta–Fulton Public Library System." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 July 2016. .
"Biographical History." Marcel Breuer Papers. Syracuse University Libraries, n.d. Web. 12 July 2016. .
Garrett, Franklin Miller. Atlanta and Environs: A Chronicle of Its People and Events. Athens: U of Georgia, 2011. Print.
Hyman, Isabelle, and Marcel Breuer. Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings. New York: H.N. Abrams, 2001. Print.
Lerner, Jonathan. "Atlanta’s Urge for a Trendy New Central Library May Mean That Time Is up for Marcel Breuer’s Final Building." Metropolis Feb. 2009: n. pag. Print.
United States. National Park Service. "Fairlie--Poplar Historic District--Atlanta: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 13 July 2016. .

Recorder/Date: Jon Buono, AIA / July 2016
Additional Images
Atlanta Fulton County Central Library
South elevation (1980 Stevens and Wilkinson)
Atlanta Fulton County Central Library
Detail of north corner at entrance plaza (1980 Stevens and Wilkinson)
Atlanta Fulton County Central Library
Interior view of monumental staircase (1980 Stevens and Wilkinson)
Atlanta Fulton County Central Library
Detail of bush-hammered finish on pre-cast concrete facade panels (2011 ©️ Jon Buono)
Atlanta Fulton County Central Library
Building Section (1971) Marcel Breuer Digital Archive - Syracuse University
Atlanta Fulton County Central Library
Elevation Perspective (1971-1980) Marcel Breuer Digital Archive - Syracuse University
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