In with the old: Houston library scores major design award for mid-century mindfulness

Jul. 22, 2013Culture Map - Houston

In the two years since its triumphant grand reopening, the Oak Forest Neighborhood Library has garnered accolades from AIA Houston, Swamplot and the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance for its historically-savvy and eco-friendly renovation.

But this July, the restored mid-century building passed muster with two notoriously fickle and detail-oriented professional organizations, earning itself a prestigious AIA/ALA Library Award from the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association.

“This has been really big news for us,” says architect Donna Kacmar, who collaborated with Natalye Appel + Associates and James Ray Architects on the project. “The awards are give every two years to only six libraries across the world, so it’s a huge honor for our little building.”

Opened in 1961, the library has witnessed several generations passing by its circulation desk — something the designers were mindful of as they grew the square footage from 7,500 to 12,000 and added advanced features that have earned the project LEED Gold.

“People in the neighborhood tell us stories about checking out books as kids. There’s a lot of personal history here.”

Kacmar tends to shy away from terms like preserved or renovated, opting instead forsaved and corrected. The word choice points to a series of design decisions that re-envision the vintage building in the 21st century rather than create a monument to Houston’s past, as seen with the Julia Ideson Library.

The library’s mod centerpiece — a decorative interior/exterior wall covered in a green tile mosaic — was carefully spared as crews installed energy-efficient glass to daylight reading areas for toddlers, teens and adults. Original light fixtures and furniture were restored to help bridge the new and old.

Long obscured by a Chase Bank that was added to its parking lot in the mid-1980s, the main entrance of the library was relocated to the west side of the building to face the neighborhood and an elementary school across the street. Greeting visitors at the new entryway is a sweeping, oval-shaped deck space designed by Houston landscape architecture James Burnett.

After all the glowing reviews for the Oak Forest project, Kacmar says she, along with Appel and Ray, have been tapped by the City of Houston to update the 1970s-era Jungman Library on Westheimer in the Galleria area.