Boston Public Library, Central Library Renovation

Architect: William Rawn Associates, Architects Inc.

Owner: City of Boston, Public Facilities Department, Capital Construction Division

Location: Boston, Massachusetts

Embracing the concept of a library as a big urban room, it provides immersive and engaging learning experiences for patrons inside as well as pedestrians who pass by.

Anchoring Boston’s Avenue of the Arts—the city’s most walkable street—and surrounded by retail destinations, the renovation of this 156,000-square-foot civic monument enables a much wider spectrum of the city’s populace to further enjoy one of Boston’s true treasures. Embracing the concept of a library as a big urban room, it provides immersive and engaging learning experiences for patrons inside as well as pedestrians who pass by.

Originally constructed in 1895, the library received an inward-facing addition in 1972. This renovation has dramatically transformed the second wing from a solid stone bunker to an inviting light-filled space that spills out into a newly defined public plaza. To honor the landmark building while redefining its use for a new era, the design team adhered to a set of core principles for preserving successful elements of the original beloved but outdated design. Increasing ceiling height and replacing dark-tinted glass and stone walls with floor-to-ceiling windows has completely opened the library’s interior to the city streets that surround the library on three sides.

The space’s program was carefully reconsidered through the lens of a 21st-century patron to address the needs of all visitors, from pre-readers to adults. To further serve as a hub for education and innovation, the library boasts a range of spaces for both formal and informal convening. A 340-seat auditorium, open space for performances, and a conference center have helped increase public interest and the free flow of ideas.

To provide a more immersive experience for patrons, the design team also rethought the arrival process at a library. Rather than being greeted by the circulation desk, patrons now enter through a front porch and immediately access a number of highly active spaces, including displays for recently published and popular books, a new café, and a recording studio for PBS affiliate WGBH. An interactive and staffed welcome desk replaces the typical encumbrance of the circulation desk, which is located further within.

The greatest benefit to patrons, however, is the much more fluid connection between both wings of the library. In the 19th century, the original wing redefined public access and public space. By addressing a 40-year-old architectural challenge and breaking programmatic barriers, the design team has redefined the library’s usefulness.

Additional information

Audiovisual and acoustic design: Cavanaugh/Tocci Associates

Café architect: Darlow Christ Architects

Construction manager: Consigli Construction Co., Inc

Engineer (civil): Nitsch Engineering

Engineer (MEP): Cosentini Associates

Engineer (structural): LeMessurier Consultants

Environmental graphics: Arrowstreet, Inc.

Interactive digital designer: Small Design Firm

Interior architecture: LAB [3.2] Architecture

Landscape architect: Reed Hilderbrand LLC

Lighting design: Lam Partners


Will Bruder, FAIA, (Chair) Will Bruder Architects, Phoenix, Arizona

Duncan Ballash, AIA, EHDD, San Francisco, California

Luren E. Dickinson, Beaumont Library District, Beaumont, California

Ameet Doshi, Georgia Institute of Technology Library, Atlanta, Georgia

Alan Grosenheider, UCSB Library, Santa Barbara, California

Alexander Lamis, FAIA, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, New York City, New York

Image credits


Bruce T. Martin


Robert Benson Photography


Robert Benson Photography


Robert Benson Photography


Bruce T. Martin