Milwaukee's New East Library Honors Its Past, While Folding in Sustainability

Nov 22, 2014

After sixteen months of construction and many more of planning, Milwaukee Public Library's new East Branch opens its doors to the public.

The branch occupies the street level of a new five-story complex. It features 99 apartments that rise above and behind the library's walls.

Spokesperson Brooke VandeBerg says the new 16,000 square feet space  is Milwaukee Public Library’s second experiment in mixed-use construction. Villard Square Library was the first. It opened in 2011 and features 47 grand-family apartments above it - where the grandparent serves as the primary primary caregiver.

Rachel Collins manages the Villard Square branch, and is guiding the new East Library through this exciting time. Books are arriving, the staff is growing and the place is generally coming to life.

East’s book collection is smaller now. That’s just the nature of the way patrons use libraries today. There are fewer stacks and fewer shelves here.

Billy Borkenhagen with HGA Architects and library manager Rachel Collins.
Credit S Bence

It fell to architect Billy Borkenhagen and his colleagues to make the library as efficient and welcoming as possible.

He points to the library’s community room as the focal point. “Oftentimes rooms like that are tucked away at the back of the library," Borkenhagen says. "So by bringing to the front of the library, it’s kind of a gesture that suggests that it’s a very welcoming room.”

Manager Rachel Collins touts the cozy natural gas fireplace and other new gismos, such as the dual Induction sorter, “where you can return materials from the inside and then receive a receipt.”

Billy Borkenhagen says toilets have dual-flush and every light bulb is LED. "This building has automatic shades that can be programmed to react to the lighting conditions outside," he says. 

Here and there you spot white wall space. It’s painted glass, upon which manager Rachel Collins says library visitors are allowed – even encouraged– to scribble. “The whole area in our teen area – which we never had before – we have this marker wall that’s also magnetic and will give people the option to do some drawing and create some expression,” she says.

Beyond the patron-friendliness and energy-saving, Billy Borkenhagen says as much as possible, the bones of the old library have been incorporated into the new one.

The original East Branch opened south of here in 1909 – a single room offered by a generous Congregational Church. Its new address is the branch’s fifth incarnation and sits on the footprint of its predecessor – a stand-alone, single story brick structure - that opened in 1968.

Borkenhagen says its wood planks were incorporated into the new library’s ceiling. A a ribbon of richly-hued stained glass wraps artfully around a corner where ceiling meets wall. It too was salvaged from the previous library.

One of three artists commissioned to create public art of East Library - kathryn e. martin created Topos.
Credit S Bence

Craftsmen fashioned benches and long communal computer tables from former structural beams.

Public art is central to the new library. Kathryn E. Martin is one of the three selected artists.

She sits on a beautiful slab of salvaged oak – fused to a pillar. It’s part of her piece, titled Topos, that rises from the floor to the top of the 16 foot ceiling. In a puzzle-lie way, it depicts a map of Milwaukee’s east side.

“So as we look at it the ceiling is Capitol Drive and the floor is the Milwaukee River in the Third Ward. And then left to right is the Milwaukee River to Lake Michigan, complete with manmade structures at the waterfront,” she says.

Martin’s raw material was harvested from a honey locust and elm that used to stand here. Nearly a year ago, Martin and her young daughter watched a crew fell the trees.

Martin's then two-year-old daughter hangs out with City of Milwaukee forestry team.
Credit kathryn e martin

She drew from others expertise of others to perfect her map. “ I’m an instructor at UW-Milwaukee and through the Golda Meir Library, they have a wonderful connection with the American Geographic Society," Martin says. So I worked with their graduate students and researchers to find the maps, to make the maps and then get it over to my fabricator to get it cut."

She is both artist and mother to a three year old. Martin says that added to the urgency that her contribution to the library stems from this very spot.

“Look, [my daughter] won’t care that I’m the artist of this, but years down the line, she will and it’ll be here forever," Martin says. "And the green aspect of it is important, because I want her to be here forever, and this is what’s important.”