Brooklyn Public Library’s iconic Central Branch debuts a Toshiko Mori-led refresh

A New Chapter

Brooklyn Public Library’s iconic Central Branch debuts a Toshiko Mori-led refresh

Marking the 80th anniversary of its completion and the upcoming phased reopening of libraries across New York City, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL)’s landmark Central Branch on Grand Army Plaza has unveiled a whole new look following an expansive, two-year interior refresh headed by Toshiko Mori. The highly anticipated $38 million renovation has yielded a range of new and improved community resources available to BPL patrons, made possible by opening up a considerable amount of administrative space within the National Register of Historic Places-listed art deco complex on Eastern Parkway and Flatbush Avenue that was previously inaccessible to the public.

As noted by Linda E. Johnson, president and CEO of Brooklyn Public Library, in a statement, the building, now more than ever, “embodies BPL’s mission: its soaring architecture belongs to absolutely everyone, and inside it they’ll find the resources they need to participate in and advance our democracy.”

At the heart of the revamp is a new space called the Civic Commons, a central resource hub dedicated to, per the BPL, “services and organizations that facilitate participation in public life.” Accessible via a dedicated entrance on Flatbush Avenue, the Civic Commons is, among other things, a Passport Services Center, an IDNYC office, rotating community partner office, and computer lab, along with ample seating and, of course, free WiFi. As detailed by the BPC, further down the line the Civic Commons, which was funded by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, will serve as a venue for various civic events hosted in partnership with organizations like with Brooklyn Voters Alliance, Immigrant Justice Corps, and the NYC Department of Health.

books on display in a public library
Situated near the front entrance, the curated New and Noteworthy book gallery highlights conversation-sparking titles. (Gregg Richards)

Adams noted in a statement that he believes the Civic Commons will serve as “a true democratic hub for people across the Borough to get involved and engaged.”

The renovation and restoration, the largest in the history of the Central Branch, also includes the debut of a new book-dedicated area strategically positioned near the library’s front entrance off of the main lobby. Dubbed “New and Noteworthy,” the new book gallery possesses comfortable, indie bookstore vibes and showcases a highly curated selection of fiction and nonfiction that just don’t represent the top-circulating titles du jour but topical ones that speak to the moment and promote conversation. Flooded with natural light and featuring an illuminated, custom-designed metal ceiling sculpture, New and Noteworthy invites library users to linger and explore and, as noted in a BPL press release “brings books to the front of the library, reflecting BPL’s mission to provide free access to all the world’s wisdom,” for the first time in decades.

Named in honor of Brooklyn’s famed “librarian in congress,” another new feature of the renovation is the Major Owens Welcome Center, a bustling information hub situated straight through the main entrance where patrons can check-out and return items and be directed to other sections of the sprawling, 352,000-square-foot library if they need help finding their way. (The Tennessee-born Owens, who was first elected to replace a retiring Shirley Chisholm and represented New York’s 11th and then 12th Congressional districts in the United States House of Representatives from 1983 through 2007, worked as a BPL librarian throughout the 1950s and 60s.)

a woman sits on a windowsill reading a book in a public library
The Civic Commons (Gregg Richards)

A fourth major component of the renovation, a new Business and Career Center, is reserved for small business owners and those hunting for employment. Outfitted with a quartet of private meeting rooms, co-working spaces, two seminar rooms, and several privacy-affording “conversation nooks,” the center benefits from the presence of trained business librarians, who, according to the BPL “are on hand to help with everything from resume review to navigation of local, state and federal government aid programs.” The new center is directly connected via an enclosed glass staircase to the Shelby White and Leon Levy Info Commons, a popular first-floor resource area that first opened in 2013 and includes community meeting rooms, open space for study, a suite of recording studios, and more.

In addition to the New and Noteworthy book gallery, Civic Commons, Major Owens Welcome Center, and Business and Career Center, the New York-based Toshiko Mori Architect and larger project team also completed substantial restoration in  the Central Branch’s grand lobby. That includes the refurbishment of its signature oak paneling, new lighting, and newly poured terrazzo flooring. Upgrades and restoration work was also carried out elsewhere throughout the building including refinished wood paneling and terrazzo tiling on the second floor, new elevators, a new fire alarm system, the installation of high-efficiency HVAC systems in the new areas, and new lavatories, including two all-gender bathrooms.

“The words carved at the entrance to the library read ‘The Brooklyn Public Library, through the joining of municipal enterprise and private generosity, offers to all people perpetual and free access to the knowledge and thought of all the ages,’” said Mori in a statement. “I am honored and privileged to be able to work with the Brooklyn Public Library, its leadership team, and its amazing group of supporters to make the library ready to meet the current and future needs of its community. In partnership with Gilbane [the construction management company leading the renovation], we were able to optimize the spatial potential of the Central Branch to engage and respond to the evolving needs of its community and to further its role as an essential civic and community asset that provides diverse amenities for the public. Its mission of providing knowledge for free to everyone is now enhanced by increased physical and visual access to its resources. Led by their own curiosity, the public can explore the library’s vast collection and experience a sense of discovery and wonder.”

a busy room in a public library
A reading area in the New and Noteworthy book gallery. (Gregg Richards)

The expansive revamp unveiled today marks the completion of the first phase of a larger evolution underway at the BPL Central Branch, which is one of the highest-trafficked single buildings in Brooklyn, with an estimated 1.3 million visits per year. The second phase of renovation work, scheduled to kick off in 2022, will entail an update to the collection wings, the creation of a new teen center, and the expansion of the existing adult learning and literacy center as well as additional infrastructural upgrades. Planned, but yet-to-be funded subsequent phases, envision transforming the building’s basement into a “flexible experience space,” creating a rooftop garden for community agriculture and educational programming, and much more.

In addition to Adams, funding for phase one of the Central Branch renovation came from Mayor Bill de Blasio, the New York State Assembly, the New York City Regional Economic Development Council, Empire State Development New York City, New York State Department of Education, New York City Council Brooklyn Delegation and Susan and David Marcinek with additional funding provided by Jay L. and Robin K. Lewis, Miriam Katowitz, Brian O’Neil and The Estate of Doris M. Ohlsen.

“Beyond housing some of the world’s greatest cultural and educational resources, the Brooklyn Public Library is THE resource hub for Brooklynites,” said de Blasio. “With this new investment, the Brooklyn Public Library can better serve the public, making it easier than ever before for New Yorkers to engage civically, cultivate their small businesses, and expand their careers in their own backyard.”