Cambridge Public Library

The Cambridge Public Library is a historic library located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The original Romanesque building was constructed in 1887 by Van Brunt & Howe architects and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. In November of 2009 a new addition and renovation opened. The addition and renovation was designed by William Rawn Associates and Ann Beha Architects of Boston, MA. This addition nearly quadruples the original’s building’s square footage and is prominently known as being the first building in the U.S. to incorporate Double-Skin Curtain wall technology. One can examine the historical architectural qualities of the Cambridge Public Library along with the social context behind the evolution of university libraries and the message they convey to the world.

Located in the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts, adjacent to Harvard Yard, and down the street from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Cambridge Public Library represents a cultural beacon attracting students, families, and people of all ages from the greater Boston area and the world. Libraries in early American higher education lacked in providing a body of students the resources and space required in their quest for knowledge and the pursuit of individual research. Modernist architect Walter Gropius and chair of Harvard’s architecture department in 1950 criticized, “how can we expect our students to become bold and fearless in thought and action if we encase them in sentimental shrines feigning a culture which has long since disappeared”(Gyure 24)? The 21st century library design is to make contemporary libraries accessible to as many people possible. “With over 2,000 visitors each day, the Cambridge Public Library has become a new intellectual ‘Town Common’ for Cambridge”(William Rawn Associates).

The development of the original library began in 1887 and was not completed until 1889. The original building was designed by the architect Henry Van Brunt and consisted of 3 zones. The first addition came in 1894 only 5 years after the library had been built due to the increasingly high amount of usage. Specifically, the library had seen such a surge in the children coming to use it that it was proposed to add a wing devoted to the children.This wing was very successful and in another 6 years another addition was added.

In 1902 the second addition to the library was built. The addition would consist of adding to the stacks room so that the library could keep up with all the books it had been receiving through donations and its growth. When the library was constructed in 1887 it could hold 65,000 volumes. In 1902 it could now hold 130,000 volumes.

The third major addition took place in 1967 and added a three story addition to the pre existing building. The addition to the building made the library much larger but in general the addition was a bust. The 1967 addition took away from the atmosphere that had previously surrounded the library. It was not until 2009 that the CPL would return to its former glory.
When designing the most recent 2009 addition William Rawn Associates had particular set of goals. Cambridge, with its diverse population, needed a place where its patrons would feel invited. To ensure that the people of Cambridge would feel welcomed into the library Rawn developed a transparent façade. This facade is oriented south to take advantage of the southern sun’s energy and create a more efficient building. It was was necessary that the other three sides of the building were aligned with the original building and the neighboring school.The double-skinned technology was designed to ensure thermal and visual comfort. This allows the inside of the building to feel like an emporium rather than a library. Outside air enters through a hatch in the ground and fills the wall cavity. As the sun heats the air it creates a thermal blanket reducing heating costs. The hot air then rises from a latch at the top of the wall creating a chimney effect and lowers cooling costs. To aide in the inviting rhetoric nature of the building, some bright colors are used including a crimson red wall and ceiling as well as a terrazzo-clad grand staircase. This offsets the natural materials used in the rest of building and can be visible from the park. At night the effect is striking but by day the result is enlivened with the double skinned façade and stair skylight providing ambient light.

The CPL is an iconic landmark for the Cambridge community. It has gone through many significant changes since its construction due to its use. The most recent 2009 addition has combined the historic building with the world of today in extremely successful rendering that can be used for years to come.



1891 Cambridge Public Librarypdf / 150.77 kB Download


449 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02138 ~ Cambridge Public Library can be accessed by MBTA bus and train. 70-car underground parking garage with access from Broadway is available when the library is open. It costs 25 cents for every 15 minutes of parking. You may pay by using quarters or credit card (Mastercard or Visa).