Last week, Mayor Kenney began talking up a plan to upgrade Philadelphia's neighborhood libraries and rec centers. Many of those structures date from the period after World II, when the city embarked on a campaign to bring civic buildings to far-flung parts of the city. Because they were intended as community anchors, the city would often hire top architects and encourage them to produce significant designs.
The Northeast Regional Library on Cottman Avenue is one of the most notable results. Although the low, modest, concrete building sits amid a landscape of strip centers and auto repair shops, it presides over the clutter with an almost regal calm, bringing civic grandeur to the highway.
Opened in 1963, the library is the work of Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham (GBQC), a firm associated with a style now called Heroic architecture (or, less charitably, Brutalism). The firm had just attracted notice for another strong civic statement, the police headquarters at Seventh and Race. But while that figure-eight structure is highly sculptural, the regional library is formal and geometric.
Because the library isn't much bigger than a typical Cottman Avenue chain store, the architects needed that rigor to alert motorists to the presence of the little civic oasis. They began by setting the library back from the street, behind a small pedestrian plaza.
They then organized the structure around three geometric volumes: an unadorned tower flanked by two cubes of different sizes. The smaller one serves as the lobby, and the big cube houses the airy reading room. GBQC oriented the entrance toward the plaza so the lobby is buffered from street noise. The central tower acts as a fortress gatehouse, beckoning to passing motorists. A top-heavy series of overscale crenulations continues the castle theme.
Flat, concrete panels, heavily aggregated with large pebbles, march across the facade like rows of books. They alternate with enormous vertical windows that allow sunlight to pour into the double-height reading space.
What results is a combination of strip-store scale and monumental civic demeanor - the perfect mix for a regional library serving suburbanizing neighborhoods of Philadelphia's great Northeast.
If you're near the Market-Frankford line, it's possible to reach the library by taking the train to the Frankford Transportation Center and changing for the Route 58 bus. But you may be better off driving I-95 to 2228 Cottman Ave., just west of Bustleton Avenue.