Thursday, February 26, 2015

Vaults of Knowledge

Craigshead Public Library in 1964

      Not too far from the lively downtown of Jonesboro, AR sits the Craighead County Public Library. This interesting Modernist building is nestled in a beautiful historic neighborhood, in contrast to the charming Victorian and Craftsman houses all around it. Rather like Little Rock and Fayetteville, Jonesboro was a center for Mid-Century Modern architecture. The presence of a significant university in all three cities was probably a factor in this development. However, there were also very progressive architectural firms in all three cities as well. In the case of Jonesboro, the firm of Stuck, Frier, Lane, Scott Inc., now Stuck & Associates, who created many works of Modern architecture across the city, and all down the Arkansas Delta. Many of their works in Jonesboro reside on the campus of Arkansas State University, but they also created several fantastic examples around the city, many for the city of Jonesboro. The Craigshead County Library was one of these buildings.
   Stuck Frier Lane Scott Inc. designed this building as the fourth in a series of libraries that had moved around downtown Jonesboro from its founding in 1917 until this building was completed in 1964. The original location was in a commercial space at Union and Huntington, the following two were both located in houses. However, only one of the former library locations survives today, a stately house at Elm and Main, but I digress. It became evident by the late 1950's that a new library building was necessary to house the expanding needs of the county library. It was decided that a building in the Modernist style was preferable due to the up to date and "modern" image that such a building would provide to the city of Jonesboro and to the county as a whole.
    The firm of Stuck Frier Lane Scott Inc. was a firm with a progressive reputation. They paid constant attention to the national architectural publications and architectural trends, after all architectural ideas do not appear out of thin air. This is seen in their Craig Ellewood inspired former office building on Southwest Boulevard, but that is a building for another post. Anyhow, I mention all of this to say that the inspiration for the design of the library likely came from the work of one of the recognizable Modernist architects in the country, Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the late World Trade Center Towers. In 1961 a building designed by Yamasaki was completed in Lansing, MI on the campus of Michigan State University. The Michigan State Medical Society Building was a stunning prototype for many of the his future design motifs, and a fantastic case study for the firm.
Michigan State Medical Society Building, 1961
The similarities between the two buildings are pretty obvious at a glance. They both take advantage of the plastic properties that were inherent in concrete which were starting to be experimented with during the Mid-Century period by architects. The most recognizable examples were produced by Eero Saarinen, such as the TWA Terminal (1962) at Idlewild and Dulles Airport (1962) in Washington D.C.. However, the work of Yamasaki used this material in new and exciting forms well before these works by Saarinen,as seen in Yamasaki's design for the Lambert - St. Louis International Terminal (1955).
Lambert - St. Louis International Terminal, 1955
Like Saarinen's TWA, Yamasaki created a concrete shell which took advantage of the ancient architectural technology of the arch to span large areas with minimal supports. It was this experiment with concrete that allowed Yamasaki to do his later designs, such as the Medical Society Building. I say all of this to eventually say that it is very possible and probable that Sid Frier of Stuck Frier Lane Scott, Inc., had come across photos and write ups of the Medical Society Building which influenced the design for this building. However, there is an example that was closer to home that may have also served as the inspiration for the design of the library. In 1961, same year the Medical Society Building, First National Bank of Wynne completed a new building to house their operations. Unfortunately, I know very little about this building, I don't even know the architectural firm that created the design. That being said, I do know that Stuck Frier Lane Scott Inc. did have a presence in the town of Wynne, given the series of other buildings in Wynne designed by the firm. Even if this wasn't the case, the proximity of the First National Bank to Jonesboro, being that they are only 46 miles apart, would be enough to infer a connection.
First National Bank of Wynne, 1961
    The arches of the building are definitely the star of the design for the library, however there is another element in the design that speaks to an icon of Modern design. The round structure that sits at the back corner of the building houses the auditorium for the library. Now to the average person this form is a complete anomaly, however, to the architectural historian this is likely a reference to Philip Johnson's 1949 Glass House.
Glass House, 1949
The house is based on the work of Mies van der Rohe, specifically his Farnsworth House (1945-1951). The exception to this is a cylindrical form in the center of the house. This space holds the bathroom for the house, and was intentionally designed to be an anomaly. Johnson thought that the form added a needed break from the rigid grid and straight lines of the Miesian form. Now this isn't quite the same situation in the library, instead it could be seen as an extension of the rest of the building. The barrel vaults are perfect half cylinders, and the auditorium is a full circle. Similarly the materials of each element is complimentary. The arches are made of concrete, as previously discussed, which is counter-intuitive to the typically rigid nature of concrete. The same is true of the round structure.
   Now I would like to say that pointing out the possible inspirations for this design does not in any way take away from the beauty of this building, or the originality of the design. Each of these three buildings serve different purposes and the reasons behind the choice of this design style were all different. I cannot speak as to the efficiency of the designs for the other buildings, however this form was ideal for the use as a library. The reason for this is the open space that is allowed by the arch design, which requires minimal interior supports. This feature allows for the insertion of scores of bookshelves to appear seamless and only natural. Of course, classical forms are natural pairings for the typology of the library.
Craigshead County Public Library interior
       The Craigshead County Public Library was a remarkable example of a local interpretation of the Expressionist style of Mid-Century Modern architecture. However, the ever expanding needs of the library, have led to two significant additions/alterations to the building. While these changes were made in order to accommodate the life of the library, which has ensured the continual use of the building, they have also made it impossible for this building to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This being said, this building is still a remarkable example of a rare architectural form in this state, and a stunning public library that serves as a monument to the long legacy of the Craigshead County Public Library.

TWA Terminal at Idlewild, 1962

Dulles International Airport, 1962

Farnsworth House, 1945-1951

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