Project Profile: Enoch Pratt Free Library
Scope of work: Three-year, $115 million renovation of an occupied, 290,000-square-foot library, including complete upgrade of HVAC and telecom systems, exterior restoration/repointing, roof replacement, thorough interior renovations and restoration of historical architectural features
BC&E Member companies involved: Gilbane Building Company
Some of the most exquisite architectural elements inside the Enoch Pratt Free Library were at risk of being lost forever. Intricate painting on the ceilings had been covered in layers of white paint. Large stretches of decorative plaster were delaminating and deemed unsalvageable. And the absolute need to install a modern sprinkler system would likely wreck ornate cornices.
“But problems and challenges that you encounter on a project like this almost fix themselves when you have the right team in place,” said John Durcan, a Gilbane Senior Project Manager.
The team averted many problems through their practice of conducting pre-construction analyses of building components and on- site mockups of design elements and construction processes.
Plaster workers determined the delamination problem was caused by a coating applied in the 1970s. Although it was breaking down, the nearly 100-year-old plasterwork beneath was in mostly good condition and could be restored.
Sprinkler installers, mindful of the need to preserve the library’s historic fabric, consulted with plaster craftsmen and devised a way to install pipes in a ceiling cavity and preserve almost all the cornicework.
Conservators gingerly removed layers of white, ceiling paint to uncover some of the original decorative painting. And when they were unable to reveal motifs in part of the building, they caught a lucky break thanks to some mindful electrical workers. While removing lighting fixtures, the workers discovered that some decorative painting had been covered and preserved beneath the ceiling mounts.
The project, which was the building’s first holistic renovation since the library opened in 1933, still delivered some unwelcome surprises.
While reconfiguring spaces within the building,“we realized that some walls didn’t go all the way up to the underside of the slab above,” Durcan said.“We reinforced the walls so when we demo-ed the ceiling the walls wouldn’t become unstable.”
Information about the building’s telecom infrastructure turned out to have a key flaw. The project team was assured the wiring was like a tree, with a trunk entering at the base of the building and branching out to closets above to serve successive floors. But when crews cut the telecom line at the top of the building to begin renovations on upper floors, they learned the infrastructure was “an upside down tree” and they had severed all service to a still fully functioning library. Deft action by the team restored the service quickly.
When Enoch Pratt held its grand reopening in 2019, however, the results were stunning. In addition to restoring the exterior and interior historic features, the project crew outfitted the building with highly efficient HVAC systems — a process that involved installing a $2 million temporary system and removing several tons of long derelict HVAC equipment from the 1930s that had been abandoned in place in the subbasement. The project also equipped Enoch Pratt with modern educational amenities, such as the new teenagers’ wing with a maker space and audio-visual studio.