Englewood Public Library

By: Adi Sela Wiener

Located in Englewood, NJ, the Englewood Public Library (Delnoce Whitney Goubert, 1968) is one of the architectural gems of the city. The library still serves in its original use and offers full services for both communities of the City of Englewood and the Borough of Englewood Cliffs. The building remains in a very good physical condition and it is almost intact even after almost fifty years of use. 
 
Photo (left): The circular Englewood Public Library, View from Engle Street, Southwest, credit: Adi Sela Wiener, August 2012
 
Although the unique circular structure of the library was included in the Englewood Historic Site Survey and the city’s Database of Historic Sites, it is not a historically designated building.[1] While no current threat is known to the library building, a future scenario in which the big two acre lot in this convenient location near the city's downtown will become attractive might arise. Additionally, the circular structure's lack of flexibility and difficulties to be expanded might contribute to a solution in which it will be preferable to replace the building in order to maximize real estate opportunity. Consequently, due to the building’s architectural and historical significance, and its high integrity it has been suggested to be included in the Docomomo US inventory database.
 

Photo (right): Historic photo, photographer unknown, date unknown, courtesy: Englewood Public Library

Opened to the public in September 1968, the building was constructed to replace the town’s Carnegie Library (1915) that could no longer support the needs of its patrons. The project was largely funded by two private gifts, the Lillian Pitkin Schenck Fund and a confidential contribution given by Maxwell M. Upson from Englewood. The Library Board of Trustees selected Englewood native architect Delnoce Whitney Goubert (1929-2012) to design the new library building. Goubert had graduated from Columbia University in 1955 and opened an architectural firm in New York City in 1958. In the 1960s he received several New Jersey commissions, including the Elisabeth Morrow School Assembly Hall in Englewood (1965), a Development House in Morris Township (1967), and Panther Valley, a country club in Allamuchy (1969).[2]

 
 
The Englewood Public Library is located on a naturally sloped 1.84 acre site. It is visually striking on account of its circular shape, modern architectural style, and its position on the site and along the streetscape, which becomes intensified in the evening when the circular transparent structure 'glows' in the dark. Surrounded by a sunken garden of rich evergreen vegetation, a small pool, circular concrete terrazo disc-shaped stools, and embedded flat concrete circle ‘footprints' in the lawn, the building seems as if it is detached from the ground. Both the main and the side entrances are accessed by concrete bridges overlooking the garden (Figure 3).
 
Photo (left): The main entrance bridge and the sunken garden with the pool and the circular concrete terrazo disc-shaped stools, view from the north, courtesy: Englewood Public Library
 
Photo (below): The double space height gallery at the entrance, view from the second floor balcony, credit: Adi Sela Wiener, August 2012
 
 
 
 
 
The rotunda-like structure is defined by two rings, each consisting of twenty-four exposed concrete columns throughout its height without any other central support, and with alternating brick and glass bays between them. The 'fin-like' concrete columns meet the concrete beams and carry an upper fenestrated cylinder and vaulted concrete roof, twenty-eight feet high above the main floor. The building's vertical appearance is stressed by the two-story height façade of exposed deep-red brick bays in running bond (stretcher bond) for infill walls, and glass bays made of aluminum framed 3/8" fixed bronze-tinted glass and pentagonal fixed-glass windows at the top of the bays. The building's structural system and engineering scheme are clearly observed from outside as well as inside the building. Once inside the double-height open gallery, the floor's layout, the circulation, and the furniture arrangement emphasize the circular characteristics of the space. The library is well-lit by the natural light that floods its interior spaces.
 
The Englewood Public Library building excels in a minimal number of building materials for both its exterior and interior. Extensive use of exposed concrete, exposed brick, aluminum and metal and large glass surfaces with various wood types and finishes define the predominantly colors of the exterior and the interior: white and shades of brown. The green of the surrounding landscape, seen through the library’s windows, also contributes to the color scheme.
 
Photo (below): The circulation desk and the sculptured chandelier at the library double space height central volume, credit: Adi Sela Wiener, August 2012
 
The custom-made, round walnut circulation desk which stands under the sculptured chandelier (Bogdan Grom, designer) whose design echoes the shape of the building stands out among the custom made furniture, which was designed to fit the circular layout. In addition furniture designed by the Danish American furniture designer Jens Risom (1916 - ----) were purchased for the library, some of which is still in use.
 
Englewood Public Library was widely publicized in advertisements, commercials and its splendor captured the attention of local and regional newspapers. News about the circular library building spread quickly. It became a regional attraction. People came to explore the building for its architecture, its 'cutting edge' design, and the modern concept it presented. Furthermore, the library received national attention for its design. The library's landscape design (Thomas F. Paterson, landscape architect) was nominated for the American Association of Nurseymen, Inc.1969 Landscape Award. Goubert received an Award of Merit on account of the building’s materials and technology, in a competition organized by the New Jersey Ready-Mixed Concrete Association and New Jersey Chapter of American Concrete Institute in 1969. They called it "one of the outstanding concrete structures built in 1968 in New Jersey."
 
Despite a New York Times headline from May 1966, stating that "Circular libraries… have a more practical purpose than an aesthetic one" (New York Times 1 May 1966), it seems that the aesthetic values of Englewood Public Library building and landscape were largely admired. In an article entitled "New Library combines beauty with utility" (Press Journal 16 Jan. 1969), the architect referred to the relationship between aesthetics and function: "The building which has been serving the community since mid-September inspires a feeling of serene strength. The circular design is not only aesthetically pleasing but permits the librarian to have visual control of the radial book stack on two floors from the central circulation desk" (Press Journal 16 Jan. 1969).
 
The library's circular design was most likely influenced by prominent examples of circular libraries and reading rooms, including the Old British Reading Room, British Museum, London, England (Sydney Smirke, 1857) and the Library of Congress central reading hall, Washington DC (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1897).[3]
 
Photo (right): Rendering of New facilities for the Free Public Library in Englewood, Delnoce Whitney Goubert; Date: c. 1966, courtesy: Englewood Public Library
 
Circular libraries became popular once again in the 1960s. Two examples, one from Asia and one from the United States, particularly resemble the Englewood Public Library. The Institute of Foreign Languages Faculty Library, Cambodia (Vann Molyvann c. late 1960s – beginning of 1970s), shares some architectural design principles with Englewood Public Library. The circular library, modeled on woven palm leaf hats, has a prominent external structural system of exposed concrete columns and beams, and a bridged entrance over a shallow water pool in which the building stands, resembling the Englewood Public Library's sunken garden (figures 10-15). The Niles District Library in Niles, Michigan (Trace Christianson, Jr. and his firm Good Design Associates, 1963). Constructed five years apart, both libraries, Englewood Public Library and Niles District Library, share some historical and architectural similarities. Niles District Library also replaced an existing Carnegie Library (1905), and was financed by a gift from a city philanthropist. From an architectural perspective, the desired characteristics —openness and flexibility of the space, simplicity of design, and use of the modern form— resulted in a similar structure.
 
Photo (below): Custom made fixed furniture and Jens Rison designed furniture, courtesy: Englewood Public Library
 
Englewood Public Library significance lays on its architectural and technical qualities as an impressive modern building, as well as on its historical, cultural and social importance. Nationwide, the library was constructed during a period when Carnegie library facilities, built at the beginning of the 20th century, were being updated or replaced. The recommended modern concepts for both their programmatic arrangements and design characterized the new facilities. Locally, the new Englewood Public Library was part of the city's general planning trend for construction and expansion of its educational institutions around the same decade. The Board of Trustees’ selection of a local architect also brought pride to the community, as Goubert’s family still resided there.
 
The library’s circular shape intensifies its singularity among other modern structures in the City of Englewood. No significant alterations or additions to the building or the surrounding landscape were made; the building and site are almost entirely intact. In addition, the custom-made furniture is still in use, supporting the integrity of the building’s interior. This, along with the quality of design and construction, contribute to the excellent conservation status of the building and to its architectural significance. All in all the contribution to modern architecture is worthwhile considering.
 
Arch. Delnoce Whitney Goubert died in April 2012 shortly before this documentation work started. This research, in essence, will possibly serve as homage to the man and his contribution to modern architecture and to the City of Englewood's historical and architectural heritage.


[1] The Bergen County Office of Cultural and Historic Affairs conducted the Historic Site Survey in 1981-82 and the database of historic sites was compiled by the Englewood Historic Preservation Advisory Committee in 2001.
[2] Goubert received a number of awards and recognitions including: AIA "Award of Excellence for House Design" for a development house design, Morristown, N.J. in 1967; an Award of Merit for Englewood Public Library, Englewood, N.J. from the New Jersey Ready-Mixed Concrete Association and New Jersey Chapter of American Concrete Institute, in 1969; another AIA award for "Exemplary Design in Harmony with Nature" for the Oakledge Community in 1973; and the "Conservationist of the Year" award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1975 (American Architects Dictionary, p. 339, The Concord Monitor. 22 April, 2012).
[3] Other examples include the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (the Imperial National Library) Oval Room in Rue de Richelieu, Paris, France (Jean-Louis Pascal, 1875); Library of Parliament, Ottawa, Canada (Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones, 1876); and the Amelia S. Givin Library, Mount Holly Springs, PA (James T. Steen, 1889). This design is also employed in contemporary examples such as the Denver Public Library, of Denver, Colorado (Michael Graves and Klipp Colussy Jenks DuBois, 1995); Library of Prefectural University of Hiroshima, Hiroshima, Japan (ISHIMOTO, 1997); "Bibliothekseinbau" library remodeling, University of Zurich Switzerland (Santiago Calatrava; 2004); and The Duke Integrative Medicine center library, Durham, North Carolina (Duda/Paine Architects, 2006).
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