Constructed in the midst of Northeast Philadelphia’s frenzied post-war development, the Northeast Regional Library has changed little in the decades since, and stands today as a landmark to the city’s mid-century expansion and development. In its position along cluttered Cottman Avenue, the library stands out for its high Modernist design, even it echoes the scale and materials of the shopping centers and strip malls around it. The building is successful as a community center (integral to the assimilation of immigrants from four continents) because it asserts the importance of civic life even amidst the fragmented 20th century streetscape.
Evolution Of The Northeast
For two centuries beginning in the 1630s, European immigrants farmed here alongside Lenape who had occupied much of the region for 10,000 years. The settlers took advantage of the many creeks and streams nearby. Some farmers established mills along the waterways and carved dirt roads in order to bring their produce to the city’s markets. Despite these tenuous connections, however, the area northeast of the city, in what was Lower Dublin and Oxford Townships, remained independent from Philadelphia, linked by roads to the city, but existing largely outside of it.
As Philadelphia itself grew in the 19th century, Philadelphia city and county officials agreed that a unified government would improve the area’s efficiency and infrastructure, and they proposed the annexation of the communities along Township Line Road. The plan drew some opposition from the farmers in Lower Dublin and Oxford Townships, but with support from the city and other districts that surrounded it, the 1854 Consolidation Act of the City of Philadelphia redrew the city edges around what was now Northeast Philadelphia.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Township Line Road (known today as Cottman Avenue) had emerged as the main east-west connector between the heavily-populated settlements along the Reading Railroad and the Delaware River. Over the course of the next few decades, the road became its own hub of development, as the rise of the automobile precipitated increased use of what had once been a rural two-lane road. By the early 1930s, use of the avenue as a thruway had become so heavy that it was paved and widened into the four-lane boulevard that it is today. The improvement spurred some further residential and commercial growth along the newly-renamed Cottman Avenue, but the area retained its largely rural landscape until the 1940s.
In the years after World War II, developers transformed the Northeast’s truck farms into a boomtown of suburban development and industrial expansion. Row houses and twins proliferated across the landscape as speculators snatched up the area’s undeveloped territory, marrying the urban row house typology with the suburban front yard. With developments predominantly open only to white people, the Northeast captured second and third generation Irish, Polish, Italian, and Jewish families fleeing traditional neighborhoods in North and South Philadelphia.
In service to the area’s burgeoning residential population, department stores and shopping centers multiplied along Cottman and Castor Avenues. In the early 1960s (just before the establishment of the Northeast Regional Library), developers built the Roosevelt Mall, with another department store opening soon after at the intersection of Cottman Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard. In just twenty years, Northeast Philadelphia had transformed from undeveloped farmland and primarily rural towns into the locus of Philadelphia’s postwar suburbanization and growth.
Reaching Neighborhoods With Regional Library Branch Expansion
By the mid-20th century, Northeast Philadelphia was a flourishing area—albeit without many of the amenities that would make it a neighborhood. This disparity did not go unnoticed by the Free Library of Philadelphia, which released its 1956 Regional Plan as an articulation of its vision for expansion. The plan, announced by Free Library director Emerson Greenaway, called for the first of several new regional libraries to be built at the intersection of Cottman Avenue and Oakland Street, across from a newly-developed shopping center.
This new regional library model was a marked departure from the Free Library’s development to date, which maintained the Central Branch as the single hub. Neighborhood libraries, including the thirty founded in 1903 with $1.5 million in funding from Andrew Carnegie, were small, intended as modest satellite locations to serve local neighborhoods.
With the announcement of the Regional Plan of 1956, however, director Greenaway and the Free Library of Philadelphia launched a sweeping modernization and restructuring of the city’s library system. Within Northeast Philadelphia’s context of auto-oriented development and modern convenience, the Northeast Regional Library would serve as a new kind of community center for the suburbanized city. According to Greenaway, the Northeast Regional Library would establish a new model for the Free Library, bridging the delivery of services between the main library in Center City and the branch libraries scattered throughout the northeastern part of the city. As the new headquarters for the neighborhood, the Northeast Regional Library would house a collection ten times larger than that of the branch libraries, accommodating up to 200,000 volumes as well as a reference collection, a children’s section, and a special “leisure” collection. The plan also called for lecture and exhibition space, workrooms, and offices—a vast expansion of services and facilities beyond the branch library model of the time.
The Northeast Regional Library was the first of five regional libraries called for in the 1956 Regional Plan (although only two others were ever built), which was itself an acknowledgement by the Free Library of the “heavy population movement to the city’s outer edges.” Library directors placed the new regional branches according to the ultimate goal of putting a library within “fifteen minutes travel time” of every Philadelphia resident—an intentionally broader categorization of time and transportation than the Central and branch libraries’ assumption of pedestrian access. As Greenaway argued, “Books are as important as groceries, [and] modern merchandizing must be used to disseminate the information and education they represent.” Speaking in modernized, suburbanized, and commoditized terms, the Free Library’s 1956 Regional Plan set forth a vision of a new civic presence in the commercialized landscape, correlating the new regional library with its consumer and auto-oriented context in Northeast Philadelphia.
Modernists With A Mission
The choice of Modern architecture for the library’s design was likewise intentional, emanating from the same sense of resurgence and progress that characterized much of American society in the postwar years. For the new regional library’s design, the Free Library turned to the architectural firm of Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham (GBQC). Founded in the 1950s, the firm was relatively young at the time, but had achieved a high local profile fairly quickly with the 1959 completion of the Philadelphia Police Headquarters at 8th and Race Streets. The commission was an early success for the firm, whose principals first met as classmates and teaching colleagues at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. As a firm, GBQC was influenced by the work of “Philadelphia school” architects Louis Kahn (another prominent architect with Philadelphia roots) and Le Corbusier, but also drew heavily on the influence of historians Lewis Mumford and Nicolas Pevsner.
In the 1950s and 60s, Philadelphia served as the canvas for much of the firm’s work, with commissions including the Morris Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania and the police building. During this period, the firm also produced plans for the Delaware River waterfront and new housing types in the Eastwick area of Southwest Philadelphia. As its portfolio coalesced, GBQC became known for its Modernism that spoke to—rather than broke with—the past. Robert Geddes himself reflected on this quality in his firm’s work, saying: “To be truly modern is in some sense to be anti-modern, to seek a better discovery. It is also a time of discovering the continuity, rather than the separateness of the present from the past. It is not a time for radical repudiation of twentieth century’s architecture, but for its expansion and enrichment.”
As he wrote retrospectively in the 1980s about GBQC’s body of work, Geddes counted the firm’s projects for social institutions (including the Northeast Regional Library) as its best designs. Indeed, the architects, library administrators, and city officials who designed and planned the Northeast Regional Library saw it as the utmost social institution—a new vehicle for delivering public services. The library was one of many municipal institutions that the city constructed in this era, part of a building program that included new firehouses, police stations, recreation centers, schools, and district health centers (such as the one later built next to the library). The Northeast Regional Library and other public buildings employed a Modernist architectural language in order to assert a monumental civic presence in the changing landscape of the expanding city.
Inside The Design
The library’s design echoes many of the elements found in the storefronts along Cottman Avenue, including the large plate glass windows on its northeast façade. Its use of pre-cast concrete recalls the streetscape directly in front of the building’s entrance and speaks to the mid-century development of Northeast Philadelphia. GBQC’s design also took deliberate advantage of its corner location and context, with a fenestration pattern that wraps around the corner from its northeast façade to its northwest elevation in a gesture to the commercial and residential context of its site. In other ways, however, the library is a stand-alone presence on the Avenue—both literally and architecturally. Its high Modernist design is unusual in the progression of utilitarian commercial buildings along Cottman, and unlike the rows of continuous stores or shopping malls, the library is detached from its neighbor (the public health center, constructed later) and set back from the street.
Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham intentionally shifted the library’s front doors to an orientation perpendicular to Cottman Avenue. The effect is one of buffer (which much of the library’s design seeks to establish), protecting the building’s visitors and activity from the very business—and busy-ness—that necessitated the new regional library. The transition from cars to collections is further marked by the presence of a 9’ by 44’ wooden mural in the library’s lobby. Designed by artist James Van Dyk as part of the library’s original plans, the mural was a fulfillment of the City of Philadelphia’s public art program, which to this day mandates that at least one percent of the budget for public buildings be committed to public artwork.
The reading room at the heart of the library’s design is a two-story space lit from above by skylights and “eyebrow windows” (which articulate the rhythm of the interior book stacks on the exterior of the building). The reading room is buffered from exterior noise and traffic by the library’s split-level arrangement of floors and its unusual window configuration—the exterior windows are supplemented by a second wall of glass (set back about three feet from the exterior) around the upper level of the reading room. The space was air-conditioned (a feature highlighted in GBQC’s original sketches and plans), with circulation funneled through louvered panels circumscribed just below the skylights. The building’s original design also introduced the Philadelphia library system’s only conveyor belt, which connects the circulation desk with the basement, where books are sorted and reshelved. The color scheme and materials themselves were muted, ceding dominance to the library’s collections: as GBQC described it, the space is “purposely muted to allow the color of book spines and jackets to dominate the atmosphere.”
NERL opened on December 5, 1963, and had over 1,000 visitors on its first day. Originally staffed by 19 librarians and seven trainees, the library held over 100,000 volumes and featured the largest children’s section in the city at that time. According to Harry Kapanstein, Northeast Regional Library administrator, the library had the “whole-hearted support and interest of the community.”
An Enduring Community Cornerstone
In the first five years of operation, the library loaned more than three million books. The building itself was also well received. Solomon Leon, head librarian for NERL, praised the building: “This is a functional building, more functional than any other library I’ve ever seen. It was designed to aid the work going on inside. This place can hold a lot of people and still not have a crowded feeling.” The architectural community noticed. GQBC received silver medals for the design from both the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Pennsylvania Society of the American Institute of Architects.
Today, the library is the second busiest branch in the city. In 2010 alone, 252,087 people walked through the turnstiles, including 16,800 for programs hosted by the library and another 110,573 computer users. The building has seen few alterations over the years, which is a good thing architecturally-speaking, but not always for its librarians and users (the HVAC system is particularly outdated). As one of the few civic institutions along Cottman Avenue, the Northeast Regional Library speaks to its commercial and suburbanized context—all while standing out from it.
Mary Catherine Collins, Deborah Merriam, and Haley Van Wagenen contributed research to this story.