James Baldwin Library

James Baldwin Library

In 1896 Edward MacDowell, one of America’s first great composers, and Marian MacDowell, a pianist, established the first artists’ residency in America. Thirty-two separate cottages were built in the woods—each one serving as a studio for a visiting artist. Willa Cather, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, James Baldwin and Meredith Monk have all worked there.

Each fellow spends the day alone in their studio. There are no phones or internet service. The day is broken only by a picnic basket with lunch left silently at the door of each cottage. The residents come together over dinner and at public presentations which are held in a small library building. Over time, this rustic, one-room stone structure proved inadequate to meet the environmental requirements for conservation of the donated fellows’ work and to respond to the technical requirements for various new media. Still, it was a much beloved building so it was important to recognize its history as the intellectual heart of the MacDowell community.

We began by renovating and simplifying the existing 1928 building. All systems were upgraded and the flooring was replaced by white oak boards. An audio-visual technology system was integrated into the detailing of the reading room which enhanced its use as an artists’ presentation space in the evening. All delicate work was moved out of the existing building allowing the fireplace to be used once more. The front door, which opened directly into the one room space, blasting cold air in the winter and humidity in the summer, was removed and the entry occurs in the new addition.

The new construction is set slightly behind the original library to preserve the character of the existing building. It is marked by a tall granite monolith which is visible from the distance. This is a functional outdoor fireplace that serves as a beacon for the new library complex. Both the fireplace and the new addition are clad in Boreal Green split-face granite, which was quarried near the project site. One enters the complex by walking past the stone fireplace and entering a small glass vestibule.

The addition is a one-story structure with an efficient yet dynamic plan that creates a variety of spaces within a tight footprint. A slight kink in the plan embraces a large stone boulder covered in lichens. The interior walls provide an additional 700 feet of linear shelving for the library’s growing collection and envelopes the visitors with books. Large windows are placed to frame views of the surrounding landscape and flood the interior space with natural and changing light throughout the day. 

In addition to the browsing and reading room functions of a traditional library, the new space supports cross-disciplinary collaboration, online research and MacDowell’s growing digital archive of visual arts, music, and videos. The addition houses eight new desks and several smaller areas for reading, writing or conversing. A comfortable couch and light-proof curtain create a screening area, and two small sound-proof rooms are available for those doing audio work, to listen to music or to watch films. A hallway doubles as a gallery showing the Fellows’ work and connects the new addition to the existing library. Together the two buildings create an intimate complex that responds to the needs of the Fellows and their work. 

At night in the winter, the fireplace glows and people sit on Adirondack chairs around the hearth. And in all seasons the windows glow in the darkness of the countryside and offer the possibilities of warmth and camaraderie after a day spent working alone.

MacDowell, Peterborough, NH
4,500 SF