The renovated exterior of the Central Library in Downtown Atlanta.

In front of several hundred attendees at the May 25, 1980 dedication of the Atlanta Central Library, then-Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson proclaimed, “A great city deserves a great library.” The 10-story, Brutalist style building in Downtown by internationally renowned architect Marcel Breuer, his associate Hamilton Smith, and local firm Stevens & Wilkinson reinforced the city’s growing national and international stature, and pleased architecture lovers with a strong, sculptural form; exterior concrete panels; a dramatic, concrete staircase; and minimalist details.

The original facade of the Central Library in 1982. (Courtesy AJC/Georgia State University Archives)

Atlanta Central Library grew in significance as Breuer’s last major project following his 1981 death, yet diminished with support as architectural taste disfavored the Brutalist style. Passage of the 2008 library bond referendum with stipulation for the construction of a new central library spurred preservation groups, the Atlanta Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and the public to rally for saving the Atlanta Central Library from possible demolition. By 2017, the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System hired architectural firm Cooper Carry in association with Vines Architects as designers and Moody-Nolan in 2018 as architect of record for the $44 million library renovation project.

Then-Mayor Maynard Jackson Talks with Library Director Ella Yates at the library construction site in 1979. (Courtesy AJC/Georgia State University Archives)

The architectural team worked with Library Leadership and Fulton County Library Capital Improvement Projects Administrator Al Collins to prioritize additional natural light into the building, reorganization of excess interior spaces, flexible uses with exterior and interior spaces, new exhibition areas, and use of environmentally-friendly materials and systems as design goals. Library visitors will find a dramatically renovated building with a composition of new exterior windows that maintains the rhythm of existing concrete panels, add sunlight into the second and third floors, generate captivating streetscape views for building users, but also assisted in the 2019 decision by National Parks Service to temporarily deny a historic designation for the Atlanta Central Library.

Visitors proceed from an expanded plaza for community and private events in front of the library into the new entry vestibule. A new staircase in the revamped lobby draws attention to a new atrium that centers and connects interior spaces in the library. Once closed for public use, the newly accessible rooftop terrace will attract public and private events to the building. Library champions will appreciate the preservation of Breuer’s iconic stairwell connecting multiple floors and linking enthusiasts to the building’s historic past.

The new atrium inside the renovated Central Library.

An attendee of the 1980 Atlanta Central Library dedication, Cooper Carry principal architect Tim Fish recognizes the importance of the renovated library “to bring together our community” of multi-generational members, civic groups and professionals seeking gathering spaces, teens and adults in pursuit of career advancement, and new and current visitors. The library is expected to open for the public this fall. During these contentious times, Atlanta residents and visitors will be well-served by this vision for the Atlanta Central Library.

Melody L. Harclerode, FAIA enjoys connecting the public to wondrous places as an award-winning architect, author, and Executive Director of Blue Heron Nature Preserve in Atlanta.