The Julia Ideson Library

The Julia Ideson Building of the Houston Public Library.  Houston, Texas.

It is said that Julia Ideson's (1880-1945; pioneer librarian, activist, suffragist) primary request for the new Houston Public Library was that there be abundant light.  Light is a common theme in library design, not only because of the pleasant environment it creates, but also because of the symbolism it carries: our passage from the darkness of ignorance into the illumination of knowledge. After my recent tour of the newly renovated library (guided by Ms. Barbara Humphreys) I would have to conclude that Julia got her wish of creating a distinguished center for learning where light, symbolic and real, floods every space in the building.

The entrance vestibule at the Julia Ideson Library.  Houston, Texas.
The entrance hall of the Julia Ideson Library.  Houston, Texas.
When it opened in 1926, the library replaced the earlier Carnegie Library.  The building was designed by Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram of Cram and Ferguson, and was greatly inspired by the Renaissance facade of the Universidad de Alcalá in Spain.

The Julia Ideson Library. Houston, Texas.
The Julia Ideson Library.  Houston, Texas.
The Spanish influence permeates the building, from the limestone decorations of the facade, to the iron cases that display precious books inside.

The ornate cornice of the Julia Ideson Library.  Houston, Texas.
We begin our tour under the skylight of the entrance hall, Ms. Humphreys tells us the official history of the building and sprinkles her narrative with the local lore and anecdotes from Julia Ideson's life.  The library, Ms. Humphreys says, now houses the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, manuscripts and archives full of Texas history.  We follow Ms. Humphreys into a room full of scanners and computers where gloved technicians and volunteers are digitally preserving the precious papers, but first we get a lesson in photography history:

A century old camera stands next to a photo amplifier. 
The library is full of treasures and rare artifacts, the Architecture Archives alone are a pleasure to visit; Ms. Humphreys shows us the original construction drawings for Saint Paul's Methodist Church, the beautiful Gothic Revival building that holds the corner of Main Street and Bissonnet:

Architectural drawings in the Architecture Archives of the Julia Ideson Library.  Houston, Texas.
Architectural drawings in the Architecture Archives of the Julia Ideson Library.  Houston, Texas.
A shelf in the Architecture Archives of the Julia Ideson Library.  Houston, Texas.
A 16th century Spanish prayer book from the rare book collection.

We now move through the light filled rooms towards the Children's Reading Room.  The room is divided into two separate reading spaces, and is furnished with small chairs and tables carved with scenes from fairy tales:

The Children's Reading Room of the Julia Ideson Library.  Houston, Texas.
A book display table in the Children's Reading Room.
The smaller reading room.
We climb the grand staircase and find ourselves outside a richly decorated space now called the Tudor Gallery, (in honor of Houston Historic Preservation advocate Phoebe Tudor) which in Julia's day served as the library's circulation desk.  The walls of the gallery are decorated with four murals painted by Houston artist Emma Richardson Cherry and depicting buildings of importance to Texas history.

The grand staircase of the Julia Ideson Library.  Houston, Texas.
The Tudor Gallery of the Julia Ideson Library.  Houston, Texas.
The coffered ceiling of the Tudor Gallery.
The Tudor Gallery seen from the balcony of the Architecture Archives.
The Tudor Gallery leads into the library's main reading room, and it is here that Julia's vision of light is fulfilled.  The room is punctured by great arched windows on three of its walls, and the brilliance is such that, even on a rainy spring day, the artificial illumination of the chandeliers is superfluous.

The Reading Room of the Julia Ideson Library.  Houston, Texas.
A beautifully carved wood screen separates a smaller reading room from the main hall, and in it I encounter a young man who is so focused on his study that he does not look up from his pile of books at the persistent click of my camera or the echoing tap of my shoes.

The smaller reading room on the North wall.
The Main Reading Room opens onto a loggia that was once open to the breeze, a similar loggia is located on the other side of the Tudor Gallery; the two loggie frame the facade of the library into a symmetric and balanced composition:

The glazed loggia of the Main Reading Room.
Glazed loggia at the Julia Ideson Library.  Houston, Texas.

The visit to the reading room concludes our tour, outside the mist has stopped and slowly the sun fights its way through the clouds; it's lunch time in downtown Houston, and the library court provides a quiet refuge from the busy life on the streets:

The court of the Julia Ideson Library.  Houston, Texas.


Many thanks to Yvonne Meyer for inviting me to tour the library, and to Barbara Humphreys for the wonderful narrative.  All images by Nadia Palacios Lauterbach.

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3 comments:

pranogajec said...

The Tudor Gallery is stunning.

Nadia Palacios Lauterbach said...

Thanks for reading Paul! And yes that space is stunning, I need to visit it again on a sunny day to catch all its color.

Tomás Soria (Tomypeck) said...

Nadia, me acabas de enseñar el próximo sitio donde ire a dibujar, me ha parecido sencillamente espectacular. Saludos.

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