One of the first free libraries built by Andrew Carnegie was located in Allegheny City, a short walk from the house where he’d lived as a boy after emigrating from Scotland. That library, with its music hall, was a Richardsonian Romanesque architectural landmark. It opened in 1890, and remained in operation until April 2006, when a lightning bolt swatted a decorative three-ton granite finial from the structure, causing $2 million in damage.
The library shut down and never returned; the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Allegheny branch was relocated to a new structure several blocks away on the North Side. And that 1890 landmark – save for a theater project and a couple film shoots – mostly sat empty. But it wasn’t forgotten. This week, 13 years to the month after that lightning strike, the neighboring Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh finalizes its restoration of the old library with the opening of Museum Lab.
Jane Werner, the Children’s Museum long-time executive director, says the group began eyeing the old library almost the moment it was vacated.
“We’re kind of out of space here,” she says. The museum, designed to host 150,000 visitors a year, welcomes twice that number. It also wanted new programming for older kids, ages 10 and up. Moreover, says Werner, the museum – which already occupies two repurposed historic buildings, including a post office and the former Buhl Planetarium – has reclaiming old structures “in [its] DNA.”
Museum Lab adds 47,000 square feet to the Children’s Museum footprint. Inside are a Make Lab for wood and metalworking, and a Tech Lab for 3D printing, computer coding and virtual reality, run in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center. Studio Lab hosts experiences with art and artists; the first installation is “Nek Chand: A Hidden World,” featuring some 50 sculptures by the self-taught Indian folk artist.
The building’s other like-minded tenants include Manchester Academic Charter School middle school, and University of Pittsburgh graduate students who’ll study Museum Lab itself. And the three-story-tall steel support structures for the old library’s stacks has been repurposed by artist Manca Ahlin into Gymlacium in the Stacks, which uses ropes to create an artwork kids can climb, swing and hang out on. (Gymlacium opens June 8.)
The Museum Lab building is owned by the City of Pittsburgh; the Children's Museum’s 30-year lease requires it to fund all operating costs and upkeep, says Werner.
The renovation cost $18.5 million, she says. Construction took two years, with an eye toward not only the building’s new functions but also energy efficiency, and achieving LEED Gold certification. (The building also aims to meet the Pittsburgh 2030 District standards for resource efficiency, and expects to reduce energy and water use by 60 percent below the library’s level; Cieslak credits the Green Building Alliance of Pittsburgh, whose energy modeling Museum Lab used.)
But despite replacing all 164 windows with the double-paned variety, the building’s exterior looks about the same. Inside, it’s a different story.
Most facilities for children and families pursue a sleek, contemporary look. The museum wanted to honor its new venue’s history, but there was a problem: Museum Lab project director Chris Cieslak says restoring all the crumbling plaster, and the woodwork and other fixtures that were torn out during the previous renovation, in 1974, would have been prohibitively expensive.
Instead, the Children’s Museum opted for a surprisingly raw look. Preserved is the floor mosaic in the old library’s reception area, with the central seal that reads “Carnegie Library.” Much of the building, especially on the first floor, features exposed bricks and pipes. Perforated steel plates that served as flooring in the stacks have been repurposed as decorative elements. And the spectacular, 15-foot-tall terra cotta archway that framed the library’s original entryway – a surprise when construction workers uncovered it during the renovation, says Cieslak – has been saved as well.
“We wanted the building to tell the story of how it’s, sort of, been used and abused over the years, and it’s still going strong, and here we are trying to move forward,” says Cieslak.
The design architect was Koning Eizenberg Architecture, of Santa Monica, Calif., with construction management by Pittsburgh-based Mascaro Construction.
The building’s second floor is a bit more contemporary-looking. It includes classroom space for the charter school and the assembly hall, which inhabits the same space as the original library’s lecture hall.
With the addition of Museum Lab, the Children’s Museum claims to have the “largest cultural campus for children” in the country. Werner says the benefits go beyond scale: The child-centered groups that occupy Museum Lab can learn from each other.
“There’s just this really great synergy when you’re all occupying the same space,” she says.
The students from Pitt's graduate education program, for example, will study “what happens when you have these conversations between the informal world of education, like museums, and the formal world of education, like the classroom, and can we actually have a dialogue where we might be able to change education?”
The revitalization of a long-dormant landmark building should also benefit the wider community.
Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference, said he is “thrilled to see [the building] come back into productive reuse. … It’s an important community and historic asset.”
Museum Lab’s nearest neighbor is practically a roommate: the New Hazlett Theater, which occupies the former Carnegie Music Hall that adjoins the old library.
“Not having a neighbor for a long time was a drag,” says New Hazlett executive director Renee Conrad. “I think it’s going to be real exciting to have someone in the other half of the building.” The venues actually share interior doorways (including one linking their lobbies) and stairwells; Conrad foresees possible partnerships with the charter school and opportunities to cross-promote its year-round slate of live theater, dance and music.
Museum Lab debuts with grand-opening festivities all day Saturday and Sunday.
The ribbon-cutting and a performance by the Manchester Academic Charter School Step Team are followed by shows by Steel City Slackers slack-rope walkers; magician and juggler O’Ryan the O’Mazing; youth rock band The Electric Army; DJ Shoe; and hip-hop group Center of Life: The Krunk Movement. On Sunday, Steel City Slackers, O’Ryan the O’Mazing, The Electric Army, DJ shoe and Center of Life are joined by storyteller and actor Tim Hartman, who gives workshops and performances.
Museum Lab is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. both days. Admission charges include access to both the Children's Museum and Museum Lab.
The Children’s Museum provides funding to WESA.
[An earlier version of this article misstated the age range of the intended audience for Museum Lab.]