Historical Architecture

The Wichita Carnegie Library Building Historic Renovation

The Wichita Carnegie Library Building Historic Renovation Case Study By WDM Architects 1
Carnegie Library Building Reopening Celebration in May 2009, in photo from left: Matt Schindler, AIA, Principal WDM Architects; Bari Garst, owner Bari Garst Design; Clark Bastian, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Fidelity Bank; Judy Hill, Vice President and Facilities Manager, Fidelity Bank; Clay Bastian, Chairman, Fidelity Financial Corporation

Preserving a Landmark

In 1915, the opening of Wichita Carnegie Library marked the beginning of Wichita’s cultural renaissance of education, business and art. The completed 18,000 s.f. Carnegie Library was a magnificent achievement for a city of 50,000. It was built through the generosity of renowned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and one woman determined to make a lasting difference in Wichita – Louise Caldwell Murdock.

Mrs. Murdock was a successful businesswoman and patron of the arts. The beautiful Beaux-Arts building boasted many highly ornamental details all coordinated by Mrs. Murdock. Tragically, she died just three weeks before the library opened in 1915.

Her influence on Wichita continued beyond her death and the completion of the library through the establishment of a trust that would inspire the founding of the Wichita Art Association and later, the Wichita Art Museum.

 

“It was an honor to be able to save a building so important to the community.” — Matt Schindler, Principal Architect

From library to court to planetarium

The Carnegie Library functioned as Wichita’s public library for more than 50 years, from 1915 until 1967, when a new, larger library opened across the street. The building was then remodeled to serve as a municipal court.

Then, in 1976 the Wichita Carnegie Library was converted into a city-owned planetarium, the Wichita Omnisphere and Science Center. In 1987, it was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2000, when Exploration Place opened, the city closed the planetarium.

Purchased by Fidelity

Six years later, Fidelity Bank purchased the library from the City of Wichita for adaptive reuse as a commercial banking center. The bank needed more space and the library’s proximity to Fidelity’s headquarters made joining the two buildings an ideal solution. Additionally, Fidelity leadership welcomed the opportunity to restore this historically significant building to its original grandeur, and to preserve it as a landmark to honor both Andrew Carnegie and Louise Murdock.

WDM Architects was retained for the extensive historical renovation. WDM’s project leader, Matt Schindler views the project as a highlight of his career, due to working with people “committed to excellence and the trust that developed in our collaboration.”

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Interior approved Fidelity’s plans for the historic renovation.

The Challenge of Restoring a Nationally Recognized Piece of History

One of the main reasons to seek registry is to qualify for Historic Tax Credits. Renovating an older building can be costlier than building new, so in 1966 the National Historic Preservation Act was passed to offset those additional costs and preserve buildings with historical significance. The Registry is kept by the U. S. National Park Service. Historic Tax Credits come with strings attached; there are various constraints on how a historic building can be renovated.

For a building to be on the register, it must be at least 50 years old and retain much of its historical character. Additionally, there has to be a compelling reason for it to be preserved, some relevance to the community. Is the property associated with important events, activities or people? Detailed evidence is compiled by a professional who makes an eloquent and detailed case for historical significance. This report is used to apply for Historic Designation.

 

Three phases of registration:

  1. Listing — Initiated by the owner
  2. Application —Architects typically get involved at this phase
  3. Awarding — Accountants apply for Federal and State tax credits

 

Once a building is listed on the register, the National Park Service (NPS), State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) and local Preservation Officer (PO) determine which parts of the building can and cannot be altered for it to retain its historic registration status and qualify for tax credits. Typically, original and unique building features can be restored, but not altered. Any work done on the building requires the owner to process documents to receive credits. Based on its significance to Wichita and the fact that most of the building was historically intact, Wichita’s Carnegie Library qualified for local, state and national historic designations.

Interior: Some good things, some not so good

When Fidelity took possession of the building, “we found it was being used to store the city’s Christmas decorations,” comments Clark Bastian, CEO of Fidelity Bank. “These older buildings when they go dark — like the library was without heat for five years — they go downhill fast.”

During its time as the Omnisphere, the east wing of the Carnegie Library had been gutted down to the basement to accommodate the large globe-like structure of the planetarium.

“It was the biggest thing: a metal shell made of perforated panels and holes for the lens of 21 slide projectors,” remembers Bastian, “All analog, nothing digital.”

When renovation began in the fall of 2006, Conco Construction’s first task was to clear out the planetarium. Demolition of planetarium alone cost $163,000.

 

Gratitude for Latitude

Bastian continues “We are actually grateful that the area had been used for the planetarium.” Since the historic context was lost in that area, “The preservationist community wasn’t concerned about what we did there,” which gave the architects the latitude to repurpose that space for necessary modernizations.

The area vacated by the planetarium would be used for an elevator “instead of sticking one on the side of the building,” notes Bastian. Fitting the elevator inside the building still presented a challenge. The pit had to be hand-dug because there was no way to get large equipment into that space. The roof above also had to be raised.

Recreating the Past

Each of the Carnegie Libraries were one-of-a-kind buildings, including Wichita’s. After more than 90 years of use, many of the unique furnishings, light fixtures, interior doors, considerable millwork, plaster moldings and artwork had been removed or lost.

Historically accurate restoration required diligent architectural research. Chandeliers and wall sconces were hand-fabricated using rare vintage photos as the only reference. In order to match the original flooring, a custom run of hexagonal and mosaic tiles had to be manufactured.

The beautiful period radiators have been preserved though no longer functional. They remain in original mountings to help retain the building’s historical character.

Robert Elliot, an Italian-trained restoration artist, was hired to restore the Victorian stencil on the ceiling coffers. Bastian notes Elliot “melted 30-40 coats of paint, a layer at a time,” on a length of the beams to reveal the original pattern. Elliot then created a stencil to replicate the historical pattern and colors to the beams by hand.

The custom, quarter-sawn oak bookshelves lining the walls of the reading rooms have been restored. Two sections of discarded railings from the library book stacks were used to craft a coffee table and side table in the lobby. As a nod to the building’s cultural heritage as an art center, more than 75 works of art from regional artists once again adorn the building.

Rotunda Lobby Restorations

Three years after Mrs. Murdock passed away, a south window was bricked in to create a space for a tribute to her. A bronze-covered plaster frieze sculpted by artist Bruno Zimm of New York portrays a woman presenting a winged figure of victory to a child. This symbolism is especially appropriate as the Wichita Carnegie Library was among the first to dedicate a room to children.

For the Fidelity renovation, this bronze tribute needed to be relocated. The National Park Service required special studies and considerations before moving it. The frieze is now restored and fittingly displayed prominently in the lobby of the rotunda.

The original sunflower stained glass pieces in the top windows of the rotunda were designed by Mrs. Murdock’s assistant, Elizabeth Stubblefield. When the artisan questioned the deep blue color selection for the sky, he was told: “Come to Kansas and see our skies.” Many of the originals can be found in the Kansas Chapel of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington, D.C. Today, the 12 stained glass sunflower windows in the building are commissioned recreations by Bearden Stained Glass.

The east side of the lobby, once lost to the planetarium, was restored. The balcony rail, marble columns and original reception desk were carefully recreated from old photographs. The desk was rotated to the north. Architects strive for recreations which harmonize with the historical fabric, yet remain discernible to experts as replicas.

North and South Wings

The project’s two biggest challenges were updating the mechanical and electrical systems and reorganizing the library space into bank offices. Ornate ceiling forms could not be compromised by installing soffits or dropped ceilings to accommodate vent work and wiring. Vertical circulation had to be established without touching the historic walls. Additionally, the building needed to be made fully ADA accessible.

Schindler of WDM met these challenges by holding away from perimeter walls and utilizing the middle areas. The main floor’s north and south wings were designed to each have six offices accessed by hallways running along the exterior walls. Two-foot-wide divider furniture, nicknamed ‘fat walls,’ were packed with electrical and computer wiring and ventilation ductwork. Schindler notes that “The ‘fat walls’ became the project’s running joke — how to squeeze eight pounds of peanut butter in a five-pound jar.”

On the upper level, two executive offices occupy the south wing. Here, glass extends above the partitions fitting around the ceiling coffers, allowing light to communicate across the top of the wall, while providing some soundproofing for privacy.

The art glass skylights were refurbished and backlit to recreate the original effect of sunlight streaming through. In the north wing, a former reading room has been transformed into a meeting/training room. In both wings, some attic space was available for wiring and ductwork.

East-wing stacks

Originally, the Carnegie Library’s main book storage was in the east wing. The stacks were four 7-foot-high levels of cast iron shelving with narrow aisles. Windows were the main source of light, thus there were four levels of windows. Those east-facing windows had been painted over to block light during the years the building functioned as a planetarium.

For Fidelity’s adaptive reuse, the stacks area was reconstructed into two floors. The east windows posed a challenge because they did not align with a two-story space. Ultimately, the architect’s solution was to have a stairway descend by the two lower levels of windows and the two upper levels shine in an upstairs board room.

Basement

The basement was mostly unfinished except for a couple of bathrooms. The building was originally heated by steam from the boiler in the City Hall next door. Over time, the basement sustained damage from a leak in the connecting underground pipe. The pipe was removed and the basement was waterproofed.

Once waterproofed, the basement became the location for a sophisticated data center and a fireproof file storage area. Space was also allotted for a breakroom with the custom-replicated octagonal floor tile and border treatment. Basement bathrooms were renovated with white Carrara marble countertops.

“Days after new bathroom fixtures were installed, black rings became visible bleeding out at the base,” recalls Schindler. The concerned construction crew discovered the cause was the wrong type of plumber’s putty. “Wrecking out the counters and replacing them seemed the only solution.”

Thankfully, an experienced plumber recommended a “poultice” be used to draw out the stains. “A few days later the black was gone,” smiles Schindler.

Exterior & Skybridge

Exterior of the building

The building’s exterior was generally in good shape, merely needing some minor repair work and cosmetic updates. The building was tuck-pointed, meaning old mortar is cleaned out and replaced.

On a historic building, this is a special process with specific materials. “Historic mortar is lime-based and softer than modern mortar,” comments Schindler. “If modern mortar was used, it would be too rigid and would cause the old bricks to break.”

Some fire escapes were added when the building was a planetarium to meet the code for public assembly. They would no longer be necessary for an office building, so they were removed. Landscaping installed mimics the original design.

Skybridge

A glass-enclosed skybridge provides convenient, climate-controlled access between the Fidelity Bank Building and the Carnegie Library Building. The bridge has three structural columns that provide independent support for the walkway — meaning no load was imposed on the existing wall. This treatment allows the bridge to lightly touch the historic building. A second-floor window on the south side of the east wing was used for the entry into the Carnegie building.

Award Winning Project

  • Fidelity Carnegie Library
    Excellence in Renovation

    Associated General Contractors of America

  • Fidelity Carnegie Library
    Special Recognition Award for Renovation and Preservation

    AIA Kansas

  • Fidelity Carnegie Library
    Award of Honor

    Associated General Contractors of America

  • Fidelity Carnegie Library
    Medallion Award for Excellence

    Kansas Preservation Alliance

  • Fidelity Carnegie Library
    Keeper of the Plains Award

    Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce

Measure of Success

Great care was taken in the renovation to preserve the unique character of the Carnegie Library Building. Once in danger of being lost, one of Wichita’s most important structures, Carnegie Library, has been preserved. Now adapted for use by Fidelity Bank, it will continue to serve as a lasting tribute to Mrs. Murdock, Andrew Carnegie, and all who have contributed to Wichita’s cultural advancement.

 

It is with great appreciation that we thank Fidelity Bank for their dedication to preserving this landmark.

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Project Overview

Project Team

WDM Architects PA, Architects Conco Construction, General Contractor

Design and Construction Consultants

MKEC Engineering Consultants, Inc. Art Effects LLC Bari Garst Design Delta Electric Company, Inc. Central Air Conditioning Company

Historical Information

Carnegie Library Fidelity Bank Portfolio Project

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