A library as sacred space

How small civic buildings bring a community together

Big downtown buildings get too much attention. While we in the media focus on dramatic stories about big buildings -- the drama surrounding Block E, the endless quest for a new baseball stadium, the controversial redesigns of the Children’s Theater and Walker Art Center -- we too often forget that it’s the small, neighborhood-scale civic buildings that do the real community-building.

Community is one of those wonderfully vague motherhood-and-apple-pie words bandied about by politicians and realtors. The same word means very different things to Republicans, Greens and Libertarians. Everyone is in favor of community, but no one really knows how to define it, much less create it.

And yes, splashy civic buildings are important for defining the larger city’s identity -- that is why the new Minneapolis Central Library is so important.

Nevertheless, it is neighborhoods that are the building blocks of the city. Strong neighborhoods can keep a city vital long after the downtown has faded away. Witness St. Paul. Its downtown feels like a ghost town at night, but its neighborhoods remain vigorous.

All of which is a long way of celebrating the fact that my neighborhood library, the Linden Hills Community Library, has just re-opened after a year-long renovation. Suddenly, our community feels whole again.

That is kind of strange, when you think about it. Mostly all we do at the library is browse and check out a few books -- hardly heroic community building in action.

Yet every time we visit the library we run into someone. We stop, we visit, we amble on. And every time we visit the library, we talk to someone new. After all, what we call community is nothing more than a loose web of human relationships. The more complex the web, the richer the community.

Of course, there are plenty of other places to run into friends and neighbors in Linden Hills -- a coffee shop, a restaurant, the hardware store.

Yet somehow communities defined purely by retail establishments don’t have much community feel. It takes small-scale civic buildings -- schools, libraries, post offices, even park buildings -- to make a neighborhood feel like a community.

Where I was grew up in Wisconsin, a collection of buildings at a crossroads didn’t qualify as a village until it had both a bar and a church. This combination of sacred and profane remains necessary even today, though in historically “dry” Minnesota we don’t organize around neighborhood bars (coffee shops will do), and in our increasingly secular society, churches are no longer neighborhood-based.

What marks a civic building or church from a retail establishment is its higher aspirations. No businessperson would ever invest money in the beautiful decorative iron railings that grace the remodeled Linden Hills Library. No bean counter would allow a retailer to invest in a copper-clad front door. Yet it’s the richness of details like these that make our library beautiful.

For better or worse, small-scale civic buildings have replaced the church as the “sacred” organizer within neighborhoods. Perhaps this is a reminder that our life as citizens is a higher calling than our life as consumers. Or perhaps the need for sacred space meets a deeper human need. Whether secular citizenship is a worthy replacement of spiritual life is an open question.

But for now, I’m just happy to have our library back.

Fortunately Linden Hills isn’t the only neighborhood library being updated. The Minneapolis Library Board’s “Community Library Improvements Project” is renovating and improving the Franklin, Roosevelt and Sumner Libraries as well. Soon other Minneapolis neighborhoods will enjoy this same boost for their communities that Linden Hills now enjoys.

And that’s a great use of money, because when it comes to community building, neighborhood civic buildings can’t be beat.

Robert Gerloff, AIA, is the principal of Robert Gerloff Residential Architects, located in Linden Hills. He can be reached at rgerloff@residentialarchitects.com.