RISD converts historic bank into design library

September 01, 2006 |

Artists at the Rhode Island School of Design will have a new source of visual inspiration as well as a place to study or socialize when the Fleet Library, a historic renovation of a Beaux Arts banking hall, is unveiled on campus this fall.

The two-story library topped by nine floors of student housing was adapted for reuse as a central gathering hub and training ground for the school's artists and designers by RISD alumnus Nader Tehrani and partner Monica Ponce de Leon, principals of the Boston-based architecture firm Office dA.

“We wanted to create a space that reflected the peculiarities of an art school, RISD in particular, and acknowledge that a great number of people go there to draw and use it as a visual resource,” says Tehrani.

If students look up, they'll see an ornamental plaster ceiling that contractors uncovered by surprise and restored to its original 1920 condition. What they won't see is the building's new fire suppression system—the sprinkler heads were hidden with custom covers in the ceiling's rosette petals. Ceilings in the basement vaults were also restored, and the vaults and safes were converted to special climate-controlled storage rooms for the library's 35mm video film.

The bank's former great hall was reconfigured with two island structures at the north and south ends to break up the formerly large, cavernous space.

“It was literally like building a building in another building,” says Matt Dempsey, project manager at Boston-based Shawmut Design and Construction, construction manager on the $11 million project. Both have their own structural steel and HVAC systems, and the larger one has its own fire-protection system.

The larger study island, approximately 12 feet tall, 51 feet long, and 32 feet wide, has bleacher seats on its south edge for public events or readings, study carrels on its west and east edges, computer stations on its north edge, and a reading room on top. Underneath, it houses three group study rooms, a video-viewing room, a scanning room, and a copier room. A bridge connects the pavilion to the mezzanine level to make it ADA accessible.

The second island—the circulation pavilion—houses the circulation desk and two offices. It's approximately 12 feet tall, 30 feet long, and 30 feet wide.

The islands frame a “living room” area that serves as a common room for the students living upstairs.

The 55,000-sf project, four times the size of the school's former library, offers expanded access to the library's extensive collection of artists' books, periodicals, art, and sound and video recordings, previously accessed only through a call system. Open stacks for more than 100,000 volumes are housed on the ground floor with separate areas for archives, special collections, and reading rooms on the second floor.

Other RISD alumni contributed design ideas for the building's 110-seat café, and collaboratively designed a line of furniture for the student housing.

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