Places: Woods Run renovation brings light, neighborhood into library

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A yellow-haired girl of about 6 lugged soft, bead-filled stools, one after another, until they formed a circle around a children's table where her older sister, a brunette of about 8, already sat perched on one. Then the little one tried to push and pull over a larger soft chair that wasn't cooperating.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette photos
The Woods Run library recently underwent a $2 million renovation that replaced walls with windows.
Click photo for larger image.

"You don't need that one," said the older girl. "Just sit down before I choose not to read to you."

The little one sat, the older one read, and I, standing a few feet away last week pretending to be absorbed in a picture book, smiled.

Perhaps the only remarkable thing about this vignette is that it happened inside the Woods Run library in broad daylight. Before its $2 million renovation, there wasn't a whole lot of broad daylight in the library, a classic '60s-modern building with a fun, futuristic zigzag roof and prominent, tapered columns.

Now, much of the original brown brick walls have been replaced with high-performance windows, bringing natural light into the building as part of its greening. The redesign, by Karen Loysen and Sallyann Kluz of Garfield-based Loysen + Kreuthmeier, is aiming for certification under U.S. Green Building Council guidelines.

Other green features include better insulation, updated mechanical systems and the "Eazy Bean" furniture in the children's area, made from partially recycled, pseudo-suede fabric and foam beads that can be recycled and contain no chlorofluorocarbons, which are known to deplete the ozone layer.

For the architects, one of the challenges was fitting all of the library's needs, which included a flexible space that could be used for programs, meetings and quiet reading, into just 5,200 square feet, Kluz said. To the architects' credit, nothing feels shoehorned into this diminutive library, which packs a lot into a single story.

"We always had a children's side and an adults' side, but we wanted the spaces to be better defined," said branch manager Ryan Hughes. "We had a teen section at the end of an aisle, a small area that was not well lit or inviting."

Now teens also have their own section, which includes a bank of computers.

In their research, the architects located drawings of the library's original design by Michael R. Cozza and Associates, who had specified glass walls for an airy, pavilion look. At some point during the design process, however, the glass was replaced with brick, and in time even the clerestory windows were covered with protective screens.

"The whole thing looked like a prison," Loysen said.

One of the goals of the renovation was to connect the building to the neighborhood. Changing walls to windows, providing views into and out of the library, was a big step in that direction, encouraging patrons to feel part of the neighborhood and that they have a stake in what goes on there.

"You had no idea of the space around the library and our customers were never sure if we were open or closed. Now there's no question, and the amount of natural light that's coming in is just wonderful," Hughes said.

Woods Run isn't an official city neighborhood, but it has always seemed to me to be one of the most quintessentially Pittsburgh places -- a valley village with some neatly kept gardens and frame houses stacked on the hillsides.

Forget about looking for the run in Woods Run; the stream that gave the community its name hasn't seen the light of day in years.

"The name originated from a winding stream long since sewered," wrote George Fleming in his 1916 book, "Pittsburgh, how to see it." The stream was named for John Woods, an 18th-century settler in Ross.

Woods Run also incorporates part of the North Side's industrial riverfront. Around the turn of the 20th century, the neighborhood had a large foreign-born population, mainly Slavs recruited to work in the mills.

For decades the Woods Run Settlement House was the center of the close-knit community, until it was torn down, along with many other substantial houses and businesses in the 1960s and '70s, for a new riverfront industrial park.

The renovation will allow the library, one of the most heavily used Pittsburgh branches despite its size, to renew its role as the heart and mind of the community. For now, it's the North Side's only library, as about eight months of repair work can't begin on the storm-damaged Allegheny Regional branch until the library's insurers approve.

Two other branches are in the planning stage: The new library by Pfaffmann + Associates in the Hill District, expected to cost about $3.25 million, awaits final approval from City Council and removal of the underground gas tanks on the site. And EDGE studio will design an extensive renovation of the East Liberty branch.

A note about the landscape at the Woods Run library: Neither the original, diseased pin oak trees nor their underplanted hew hedges could be saved, Loysen said. Unfortunately, the new landscape is dead or dying -- the new ground cover, a variety of the native epidemium, was planted just before a dry spell in June and not maintained. It will be replanted, and trees, perhaps birches for their open, spreading habit, will be planted, filtering but not blocking the newly won view.

The library is at 1201 Woods Run Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; closed Fridays and Sundays. Information: 412-761-3730.


John Tranquada, 6, of West View, picks out some books in the children's area.
Click photo for larger image.

Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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