A Camden Jewel
August 10, 2011
The Camden Public Library in Camden, Maine is a magnificent example of stately architectural and landscape design, and of the citizenry prioritizing the most important building in town. When visiting a few weekends ago, I was struck by the 1996 addition to the library, and how the architect, John Scholz, approached the design with a careful hand. The addition was built UNDER the existing library and grounds, with a new lower level entry at the side street.
Architect’s renderings of the grounds (from the library’s website)
The existing library and its views across the Olmstead-designed Harbor Park to the harbor is breathtaking and unchanged, aside from a lantern-like glass building on the lawn that serves as an oculus/skylight for the new spaces below.
Toward library from Amphitheater
Because of the glass entry to the street, the oculus and roof windows, the new lower level spaces are light-filled and pleasant. The interior spaces are elegantly finished similarly to the historic library above.
Detail of oculus
From the library’s website:
“On March 23, 1896, the citizens of Camden voted to establish a free public library to be known as the Camden Public Library. The proud townspeople of Camden raised the money to build this library through various fundraising efforts. No assistance was provided by library philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Mary Louise Curtis Bok donated the land for the library in 1916. Parker Morse Hooper and Boston architect Charles G. Loring offered building plans. The cornerstone was laid on August 17, 1927 and the Library opened its doors on June 11, 1928 with Miss Katherine W. Harding serving as the first librarian.
In 1996 the library underwent a great expansion under the south lawn. The opening of this Centennial Wing allowed the library to accommodate larger collections and computer-based technology without compromising the scenic or historic value of the original building.”
Most of our existing New England libraries are too small for current requirements and many of them could use an update and more space. There are a lot of examples of modern buildings being stuck on these old venerable structures, or even of libraries moving to new buildings on the outskirts of town, where parking and land is available. Because the addition was funded by the citizens and businesses of Camden, there were no federal or state mandates on parking, number of meeting rooms, etc. It was such a pleasure to see Camden’s solution, which demonstrates pride in the historic structure, and an optimism for the new.
A brief history of the library and adjacent grounds also from the Camden Library website:
“Constructed in 1928, The Camden Public Library, the only library in the village of Camden, Maine, sits at the highest point on Main Street. Architects Parker Morse Hooper and Charles Greely Loring chose to position their building close to the street, under the shade of existing elms and maples – a more direct relationship with its surrounding built environment rather than its larger landscape scenery.
The grounds of the Camden Public Library create a distinctly unique, highly articulated series of landscape experiences, the centerpiece of which is a public outdoor garden amphitheater. Designed by the renowned landscape architect Fletcher Steele, this landscape is one of his best works of art. It was designed and constructed between 1928 and 1931, and funded by local patron of the arts, Mary Louise Curtis Bok. Steele’s landscape design is an important transitional composition that blends elements of the traditional Neoclassical with the ‘new’ ideas of the French Moderne (Art Deco) and successfully marries the ideals of the Renaissance Italian garden theater with the richness of Maine’s native landscape. The popularity and unique qualities of the amphitheater immediately led to the christening of the site as the “Camden Amphitheatre”.
The library building is a long rectangular Colonial Revival structure whose primary axis runs southwest to northeast, parallel to Camden’s Main Street. From the rear of the library, the back door opens onto a secondary axis, linking the library to the Amphitheatre’s central lawn at an oblique angle. The primary axis for the Amphitheatre runs north to south, aligned with the primary views to the harbor. Experts have celebrated the use of this bent axis as one of the first steps in landscape architecture’s move from Classical Revival to French Moderne (Art Deco).
Across Atlantic Avenue, the two-acre Harbor Park, designed by the Olmsted Brothers between 1928 and 1935, continues and extends the views from the Amphitheatre toward the harbor and its busy waterfront. This park retains its own, aesthetically distinct design vocabulary, and remains a separate yet intimately connected, companion to the Amphitheatre. The park was designed in concert with the Amphitheatre, though its naturalistic design and informal planting program contrast significantly with the structured design of the Amphitheatre.
The Camden Amphitheatre retains its historic integrity, setting, original materials and the quality of original workmanship and design. Fieldstone, brick, grass and native trees and shrubs weave their way throughout the Amphitheatre, and wrought iron rails, light standards, gates and arches add grace and French-inspired Art Deco overtones to the carefully executed, highly detailed landscape design.
For more information, visit the library’s website, or the library itself! The Camden Library, Camden Harbor Park and Amphitheatre are located just off Route 1, on Atlantic Avenue, in downtown Camden.