The United States is home to thousands of public, private and university-owned libraries that feature a range of inspired aesthetics from neo-classical to gothic, brutalist to organic. We have compiled a list of ten stunning libraries across America that both embody and exude architectural enlightenment and design innovation.
One of the world’s largest libraries of its kind, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is Yale University’s principal source of literary archives, early manuscripts and rare books with a highly extensive collection used by students and researchers from all over the world. Designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the building was completed in 1963 and constructed out of marble and granite sourced from Vermont, as well as bronze and glass. The library’s powerful, geometric exterior stands in juxtaposition to the old-world, neo-Classical and neo-Gothic architecture in the shared quadrangle, and simultaneously functions to filter daylight and protect the millions of priceless volumes enclosed within the building. Items in the library’s permanent collection include The Gutenburg Bible and Audubon’s Birds of America.
The Boston Public Library was the first free public library in the United States. Housing 16,000 volumes, the original building opened in 1854, when it became almost immediately apparent that the space was insufficient. In 1895, architect Charles Follen McKim completed his ‘palace for the people’ in the present Copley Square location and in 1972, the famous modern architect Philip Johnson designed an addition. Today, the McKim Building is devoted to research and the Johnson Building serves as the headquarters of the Boston Public Library’s 24 other branches. A grand example of American Beaux-Arts Classicism, the McKim Building became a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Inside the building are murals, collections of rare books, prints, manuscripts and maps, as well as gallery space in which treasured artefacts are on display.
Located on the University of California San Diego campus, the Geisel Library is a prime example of brutalist architecture. The university boasts a thoroughly modernist campus without a single instance of revival architecture, thus the library follows suit with an iconic 20th century aesthetic. Designed by William L. Pereira & Associates, this striking building primarily features concrete and glass, resembling a simultaneously alien yet organic form. The imposing structure offers an outstanding panoramic view of the campus from 110 feet at the tower’s apex, combining its arresting mass with the ethereal component of light. Originally referred to as The University Library Building, the library gained the name ‘Geisel’ in 1995 in honor of Theodore ‘Dr.’ Seuss Geisel and his wife, Audrey, for their contributions to both the library’s contents and the world of literature.
A division of The Johns Hopkins University, the George Peabody Library opened in 1878 as part of the Peabody Institute – a free public library, lecture series, music conservatory and art collection dedicated to the citizens of Baltimore. The library was designed by local architect Edmund George Lind in collaboration with the institute’s first director, Dr. Nathaniel H. Morison. Widely known for its dramatic and stunning interior, the building is characterized by soaring ceilings and five stories of intricate cast-iron balconies. The library possesses a general collection of over 300,000 works on an extensive variety of subjects excluding music, and remained a part of the Peabody Institute until 1966 when the collection was transferred to the City of Baltimore. In 1982, the library became part of The Johns Hopkins University.
Located on the central coast of California, Hearst Castle was the private residence of eccentric newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Designed by the prolific, California-based architect Julia Morgan, Hearst Castle was built in 1919 and is now both a National and California Historic Landmark. The castle was built to reflect the European styles of architecture that Hearst so admired, and displays his large collection of art, books and antiques. The Gothic Study and Library is part of ‘the Gothic Suite’, Hearst’s private quarters that he shared with his mistress, actress Marion Davies. The 80-foot library holds approximately 4,000 books and exudes a traditional medieval aesthetic with hand-carved wooden arches painted in the Spanish style, while the study houses his collection of medieval texts, paintings, statues and textiles.
When the Library of Congress opened in 1897 it became the largest library in the world. The current building replaced the original library, commissioned by former president John Adams, which stood until 1814 when British troops destroyed its contents in a fire. Thomas Jefferson subsequently offered up his personal library – equipped with some of America’s most valuable literary pieces in his possession – as a substitution, which served as the foundation for the Library of Congress that stands today. The building features a lavish Beaux-Arts aesthetic, the interior ornately adorned with lasting, high quality materials such as marble, bronze, gold and mahogany. Over 50 American artists contributed to the hand-carved sculptural and painted decoration, enforcing the building’s grand, patriotic ideology.
The Los Angeles Central Library is the largest public library in the western region of the United States. Built in 1926 by Bertram Goodhue, the building’s architecture is intended to infer the illumination of learning – thus it incorporates stylistic elements most apparently from ancient Egypt, one of history’s most enlightened civilizations. The façade possesses a sublime essence reminiscent of a ziggurat, with geometric and symbolic motifs throughout the building. Atop the library is a distinctive, tiled pyramid with a golden hand holding a torch. The interior features works in various mediums by a range of artists, including the main lobby’s intricately painted ceiling by Renee Petropoulos, ethereal chandeliers designed by Therman Statom, and fairy tale-inspired murals and stone carvings.
The iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building serves as the main branch of the New York Public Library, a Beaux-Arts landmark building next to Bryant Park on Fifth Avenue and 42nd street in Manhattan. After the architecture firm of Carrère & Hastings won the library’s design competition and after two years site preparation, construction began in 1902. New York was rapidly expanding into one of the most cultured urban areas in the world, thus the library was designed to accommodate the grandeur of the city, equipped with reading rooms, speedy delivery systems and top-notch resources. The library ultimately cost nine million dollars complete, and opened in 1911 to between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors. The building houses a comprehensive collection of historical items, from medieval manuscripts and ancient Japanese scrolls to baseball cards and comic books.
Influential financier J.P. Morgan possessed an astounding collection of art, from drawings and prints to ancient artifacts, rare books and manuscripts. In 1924, his son, J.P. Morgan Jr. donated his father’s library to the public, thus officially establishing The Morgan Library & Museum. Located on Madison Avenue and 36th street in Manhattan, this extraordinary structure was built between 1902 and 1906 by Charles Follen McKim. The library occupies half the city block, reflecting various styles of architecture throughout. Since 1924, several additions have been added to house a growing collection – an annex was added in 1928, a neighboring brownstone was incorporated in 1988 and an outdoor garden was built in 1991. In 2006 the building underwent its most extensive renovation yet, headed by Renzo Piano to improve the building’s visitor accessibility, gallery and archival space, and so on.
In 1998, Seattle voted to improve all 22 branches of the Seattle Public Library. The location of the Central library stayed the same, but it was completely redeveloped by architectural visionaries Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus. Adhering to the principle that ‘form follows function’, the architects created an accessible design that depicts and encourages the celebration of literature, with a thought-provoking, cutting edge aesthetic. Working closely with the public as well as the library’s board and staff, Koolhaas and Prince-Ramus revamped the entire library building, adding space and improved function to an innovative, contemporary design. The library now houses over one million items with an improved digital archive and over 400 computers.