Haydon Burns Library, Downtown

by Tim Gilmore, 6/19/2012

The Haydon Burns Library, Downtown; Or,

the Hardwick-Klutho Chess Match across the Center of the City and the 20th Century (She Cried and Cried and Cried)

Haydon 2

“Do you remember the basement?” he said. “I loved the basement. It smelled musty. It was full of piles of newspapers and of microfilm and microfiche machines. There were all these metal cabinets and it seemed like a million metal drawers full of microfilm rolls. When I worked on stories where I had to dig into the minutiae of the past, spinning through those rolls on the microfilm machines, I felt like I was in the basement of history looking up all the world’s secrets.”

The Haydon Burns Library felt like it had always been there and it also felt like yesterday’s idea of the future. Its colors and its shapes distinctly identified their origins as the middle of the 1960s—curving, rhythmic, vivid, simple but bold. Stairs and building supports and windows and benches and tiles all looked unafraid. They looked simple and joyful, but the interplay of their different simplicities could be complicated. The complications always harmonized.

“I used to volunteer for Learn to Read, Inc., and I met my student at the Haydon Burns Library twice a week. She was 27 years old and didn’t know the alphabet. She had three kids. She had a husband who was 20 years older and treated her like a daughter. He said he would do anything to support her. He was going to turn her life around. He left her two months later. She missed meetings for two weeks. Then she came back and said her brother had AIDS and her five year-old son had a broken arm. She started to cry. She had forgotten what she’d learned of the alphabet. I learned more about what it meant to be poor from tutoring Tammara than I ever did from any other experience.”

Architect Taylor Hardwick said he wanted to make the library “a place of serenity and delight.” Ann Holloway Williams designed the mural that encloses the elevators and wall in the adjacent lobby. She made the mural of blue and green glazed bricks and called it “Momentum and Direction,” a meditation on “man’s unending quest for knowledge on an ever-changing course.”

“I used to take my daughter to the children’s department there, because they were the main branch, the downtown branch, and so they had a bigger collection than any other. And even though the bright colors of the tiles and the bricks and the building supports weren’t new anymore, weren’t as bright as they had been 35 years ago, she loved them. They were bright enough for her. This building was strange to her, she had never seen mid-1960s styles anywhere else, and even though it was strange, she just fell in love with it. I never saw such an interaction between a child and a piece of architecture. It was like a magical land to her, some kind of fairy city that was identified with books and reading and the imagination. Then one day, we were driving by the library, she was eight years old, we hadn’t been to the library in months, and she pointed at it like she was pointing to a friend she hadn’t seen in a long time, and I told her they had closed the library. It didn’t matter to her that a chocolate factory and museum might open in the building—that never came to fruition, of course—I felt like a monster. I felt like I had just taken away her friend. She just cried and cried and cried. It didn’t matter to her when I said the city was opening a bigger, newer library a few blocks away. It was like I was offering her an imposter for her good, good friend. It was like a part of her childhood died. She just cried and cried and cried.”

They said that Taylor Hardwick’s library design was very human. It was loving. It was good and pure and bright and bold. It was the architectural answer to the cold, sterile, and impersonal box shapes of the buildings of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and all his imitators. New York could keep the Seagram Building. The whole exterior shape of Hardwick’s rectangular building seemed to dance with the strange buoyancy of the vertical fins that undulate up all sides. Though the fins were concrete, they rose up the building in waves that slung upward toward the taller buildings around it.

“I watched them tear it down to build that ultra-modernistic library building. That building they tore down was a masterpiece. I stood across the street and watched them tear it down. They tore down City Hall to build that library monstrosity. City Hall with a big, beautiful copper dome and a clock on top. The inside of the dome was covered in these canvas murals that were complicated and allegorical, as I recall. And here’s what I saw. All these decades later, I still can’t believe what I saw.”

“What did you see?” I asked him.

“I saw the wrecking machine standing in the debris of that beautiful palace of a building, and I saw, oh God what I saw, I saw the giant canvases of those murals fluttering all ragged and torn over the wreckage, the torn canvases of the murals flapping in the savage wind up over the destruction. And I’m sorry to say this, because I’m a religious man, I’ve been a good Christian as many of my 93 years as I could be, but I had this horrible feeling all over me. It was like I saw them stand there and urinate on a Bible. That’s what I felt like. Oh God what I saw, oh God, that’s what I felt like.”

Watch this ironic zigzag trajectory. In 1903, Henry John Klutho designed the first public library for the city on East Adams Street. The building’s still there. It’s early Klutho, not yet identifiably his style, still redolent of the City Beautiful movement epitomized by the White City at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The first public library building was built catercorner from Klutho’s Jacksonville City Hall, which was even more City-Beautiful, in fact entirely Beaux-Arts, and if not yet identifiably Kluthoesque, it was perhaps the most beautiful building the city had ever known. The library and City Hall were built at the same time. Klutho’s City Hall was torn down in the early 1960s to built Taylor Hardwick’s new Main Branch library building. So the new main library would destroy Klutho’s City Hall diagonally across the street from Klutho’s first public library. In the late 1990s, the St. James Building, usually considered Klutho’s magnum opus, was reopened on Heming Plaza, after extensive renovations and after two decades of abandonment, as Jacksonville’s new City Hall. Less than a decade later, Taylor Hardwick’s Haydon Burns Library was abandoned as the Main Branch moved to a new location in a new building (that followed demolition of a number of old buildings) catercorner from the new City Hall in the old St. James Building. The St. James Building was no longer empty. Now it was the seat of city government. Taylor Hardwick’s Haydon Burns Library, that now-nostalgic vision of 1960s modernism pointing to the bold brightly-colored world of tomorrow that had demolished Klutho’s first City Hall, now stood empty.

The architects Henry John Klutho and Taylor Hardwick had played chess across the squares and blocks of the chessboard of downtown Jacksonville. Both of them had lost. Both of them had won.

“I told her they had closed the library. She cried and cried and cried.”

The library was to be “a place of serenity and delight.”

If you can go that far back, memory feels unadulterated, if also not completely formed. Everything is primary colors and bold basic shapes. “For me,” she says, “that far back, the primordial Edenic world is not one of trees and streams, but one of books and drawings, aisles and aisles of illustrated imaginations and dreams and fairy tales housed in brightly colored green and blue bricks and tiles in the middle of a city. It was everything. It was security and stability and love and warmth and stories and the pictures of the stories of anything I could imagine. It was the perfect world you didn’t know you were losing and you didn’t know you would never get back.”