Stairway to Library Heaven

The Main Public Library’s $40 million renovation centers on a bright new central stairway designed to improve visitor circulation, celebrate local music history, attract downtown tourists, and possibly give you an excuse to exercise.

Illustration by Stef Hadiwidjaja

As my interview with Cincinnati and Hamilton County Library Director Paula Brehm-Heeger begins, one of the architects participating via Teams uses a top-secret image as his virtual background. Daniel LaRossa of San Francisco’s Group 4 Architecture Research and Planning, calling in from Philadelphia, accidentally displays the centerpiece of the library’s $43 million overhaul of its main downtown branch: A grand stairway in the main lobby named the Social Stairs.

The stairs rise in stages from the first floor of the south building at 800 Vine Street, climbing up the massive atrium past three other levels—one public and two with closed stacks—to arrive at the third floor underneath a new skylight. At first glance, I think walking the stairway could be the public library equivalent of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

But even more arresting is the stairway’s design. Along its guardrails is a spectrum- or peacock-like surface of many colors—thin vertical bands of vibrant blue, yellow, green, orange, and other colors. Seen from a distance, it’s as if they collectively form a magic curtain beckoning someone to walk up and continue straight through the ceiling. Does Shangri-La await on the other side? Oz? Heaven?

Photograph by Wes Battoclette

I mention the supposed secrecy around the stairway design, and LaRossa gets a bit nervous. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to have this for the background,” he says. “I’m sorry, Paula. Should I change it?”

Brehm-Heeger just laughs. “Danny is so proud of this,” she says to me and architect Bryan Duncan of Cincinnati-based Champlin Architecture, who also worked on the overall rehab project. “Librarians across the country are excited about it,” says LaRossa, whose firm specializes in library building projects.

He needn’t have worried about leaking secret information to me, because I’d been able to get a first-hand peek during the construction phase. For everyone else, the Social Stairs will be revealed at a public celebration the weekend of July 12–14 when the south building fully reopens after almost three years of renovation work.

The big surprise is the stairway’s unexpectedly and subtly deep tribute to the history of music with a Cincinnati connection. The railings are composed of a post system that supports a lit handrail and “buttons” that hold glass guardrail panels in place. Each panel is labeled with the name of a notable Cincinnati-related recording—both single songs and albums. A total of 1,600 panels are organized in chronological order, from 1945 on the ground floor up through 2023.

All that text—and the overall stairway itself—gets transformed into a striking visual presence because each genre of music has been color-coded. There are 31 genres altogether, and part of the learning experience for the public will be seeing how and when such newer genres as hip-hop, funk, electronica, noise rock, and Americana make their presence known among such historical standards as R&B, country, blues, rock, and even polka. In a way, it’s a kind of visual exercise in how evolution works, using music rather than drawings of human beings or animals.

The Social Stairs are meant to become the visual centerpiece and artistic gateway of the main library’s refreshed interior and maybe even a downtown tourist attraction and an exercise device in its own right. This is a far different thing from your ordinary, purely functional office staircase.

I ask if the Social Stairs compare to Rome’s famous outdoor Spanish Steps, which are wide enough for sitting and gathering and serve as a destination in their own right. “That’s exactly what it is,” says LaRossa. “The first part of the stairs, that’s kind of a gathering space for people to sit, hang out. But we wanted to make sure people could inhabit the full stairs as well and not just use it to traverse through the floors.”

Photograph by Wes Battoclette

Brehm-Heeger and Larossa developed the Social Stairs concept after he pitched several ideas and found the music theme resonating. Then Rita John and other designers at Group 4 at the time executed the concept. “We see this project as making art out of architecture,” says LaRossa.

At the request of project planners, Community Content Coordinator Brian Powers—whose long career as a reference librarian has included work with the music collection and genealogy and local history programming—took on the complicated task of choosing the 1,600 recordings. He refers to the result as “a Cincinnati jukebox.” He previously said in a presentation that “based on the number of entries and the wide scope of music genres, this is the largest public arts project dedicated to American music in Cincinnati, if not the world.”

Powers urged the architects to start the stairway with an earlier year than one they originally proposed, 1955, and include singles as well as albums. The year 1945 was officially selected as the beginning. “Otherwise, you’re going to miss out on a lot of history,” he says. “[Cincinnati native] Doris Day’s first song, ‘Sentimental Journey,’ was in 1945, and Rosemary Clooney’s biggest hit, ‘Come on-a My House,’ was in the early 1950s.”

Among the musicians and songs represented are quite a few from King Records, the Cincinnati record company devoted to roots music genres like R&B, blues, country, and bluegrass. It was based here from 1943 to 1971 and headed by music business entrepreneur Syd Nathan, who died in 1968.

King-released entries on the stairs include Wynonie Harris’s “Sittin’ on It All the Time” from 1949, Hank Ballard’s soaring hit “Finger Poppin’ Time” (1960), comedy bluegrass wizzes Homer & Jethro’s “Five Minutes More” (1946), and James Brown’s landmark 1963 album Live at the Apollo.

But the selections overall are consistently eclectic, with an emphasis on diversity, and include far more than King titles. For example, there are the late local television personality Bob Braun’s 1962 single “Till Death Do We Part,” experimentalist John Bender’s 1980 album I Don’t Remember Now, and the 2023 album First Two Pages of Frankenstein by alternative rock band The National, whose members are Cincinnati natives. Although the musical stairway is primarily devoted to popular music, jazz and classical are also represented, including the 1970 album New World A’Coming from Duke Ellington and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

For Powers, the Social Stairs have been a dream assignment. “One of the reasons I started working at the library was I loved their CD collection,” he says. “This library has a lot of local music in its collection. That’s what led me into the main library, and eventually I got a job there. That’s how I learned the local music history.” Powers used 29 consultants to suggest songs and albums, including Nick Clooney (Rosemary’s brother), record company executive Seymour Stein (now deceased), photographer and music promoter C. Smith, former WCIN-AM reporter and author Gina Ruffin Moore, and local music historian and author Randy McNutt. (Full disclosure: I am listed as a consultant, but neither Powers nor I can recall a single title I suggested.)

Photograph by Carlie Burton

There is a reason the Social Stairs content highlights Cincinnati music as opposed to, say, the library’s own history. LaRossa says he was looking for a topic that reflected a popular aspect of local culture and appealed to both younger people and established patrons. The library system has plenty of physical records and music-related books for further study, he says. In fact, Powers notes that Cincinnati was one of the first libraries to allow sound recordings to be checked out by the public.

The project can also be seen as riding a hot trend, following other artistic projects related to Cincinnati music history in recent years. A partial list would include:

  • ArtWorks public murals featuring James Brown, who recorded for King Records; the Isley Brothers; early blues singer Mamie Smith; and Rosemary Clooney (now blocked from view).
  • An 18,000-square-foot downtown mural devoted to 10 past and present Cincinnati musicians by artist Tristan Eaton, commissioned by the BLINK festival in 2022.
  • The Black Music Walk of Fame at The Banks, dedicated in 2023 and championed by Hamilton County Commissioner Alicia Reece, with 15 inductees so far.
  • In 2019, Shake It Records in Northside created a set of 36 full-color Cincinnati Musical Legend Trading Cards, with assistance from ArtWorks. The late Justin Green, a Cincinnati sign painter and autobiographical comics creator, produced the card art, while local artist Joe Walsh was project manager.
  • With King Records Legacy Foundation support, two Cincinnati venues have installed King-related murals: The greenroom at Newport’s MegaCorp Pavilion contains one portraying King artists Bootsy Collins, Otis Williams, and the late Philip Paul; and the Hard Rock Casino has one featuring Collins along with Rosemary Clooney and the Isley Brothers.

“I think interest in music history began to grow in the 2000s with the popularity of Record Store Day, which promoted vinyl records and got collectors interested in defunct labels like King,” says Powers. “That was also a time when you could hear older records on YouTube and learn more about them online. I was doing programs on local music history at the library, and Lee Hay was doing similar programs on WVXU radio.

That interest has now crossed over from collectors to a wider audience, and so you’re seeing more of these art projects.”

There were all sorts of ideas being discussed about how to make the actual music memorialized on the stairway railings available so visitors can hear it—from ensuring the library has recordings of everything listed to offering various forms of interactive delivery like QR codes. The library has decided on a selective playlist that they’ll continue adding to over time, says Brehm-Heeger.

LaRossa has a novel idea to make the music accessible for his own use, at least. “I want a personal Spotify playlist of the stairs,” he jokes.

Library administration and board members decided to invest $43 million in its downtown home after Hamilton County voters approved a new 10-year, 1-mill operating levy in 2018. There had already been a separate 10-year, 1-mill property tax levy in effect since 2013, so approval of this additional tax signaled that the public saw a need for more funding for the library and its 40 neighborhood branches. Then, in 2023, voters not only renewed the 2013 levy for another 10 years but increased the rate to 1.5 mill. (A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed value, which is 35 percent of a house’s appraised value. So if your house is appraised by the county at $500,000, you pay $175 in annual property tax for the 2018 operating levy and $262.50 for the 2023 levy renewal.)

Brehm-Heeger was brimming with ideas after the 2018 levy passage. She became the library’s Eva Jane Romaine Coombe Director that year after serving as chief strategy and technology officer, and a 2010 article she cowrote about Cincinnati for Public Libraries magazine, “Remaking One of the Nation’s Busiest Main Libraries,” had won first place (and $500) in the National Libraries Association’s contest for best feature articles. Group 4 was hired to undertake a Facility Master Plan, working closely with her, and the plan was released in 2019.

The Main Library actually consists of three separate buildings as well as several outdoor gathering sites, and some of them had become problematic. Today’s complex grew from the Woodie Garber–designed Modernist marvel that opened in 1955, which replaced the revered 1874 library a little south on Vine Street. Its demolition has been bemoaned ever since, but Garber’s own beautiful building has held up well, with such features as decorative Venetian glass tiles, pleasing use of windows and reddish brick, a third-floor meeting room adjacent to a terrace, and a surprisingly secluded first floor reading garden that’s one of downtown’s more peaceful and lovely small public spaces.

An addition opened in 1982, and it and the 1955 structure together became referred to as the south building, with total square footage of 380,000. The north building opened just across Ninth Street in 1990, with a skywalk-like bridge installed to get patrons, staff, and books from one building to the other. That made the overall main library 540,000 square feet, thus becoming one of the country’s largest, LaRossa says.

In time, problems emerged with how the 1982 addition used space, Brehm-Heeger explains. It also lost an important functional area when the catalogue cards were removed. “I think we’ve always struggled,” she says. “If you used to come to the building and didn’t know how it worked, it wasn’t entirely clear what was going on. The south building suffered from what a lot of libraries from that era suffer from—a feeling that there are individual buildings on top of each other and not a huge understanding of vertical circulation and how the library works. So the idea was we would try to encourage people at their own pace to go through the whole library.”

The plaza outside of the south building’s main entrance on Vine Street had a raised brick terrace that interfered with clear vision of and access to the inside, and there were problems with people who gathered outside. The Facility Master Plan’s executive summary offers some pretty blunt appraisals of those deficiencies from staff and community meetings and listening sessions. The report called the plaza a “major design problem with frequent customer complaints and calls to law enforcement” and said what was needed was something “safer, more welcoming, and family friendly.”

The project’s Vine Street Plaza redesign has brought the entire space to one level and removed several indoor flights of stairs to open the lobby to more visibility from the street. “It makes people feel safer if everybody sees everything,” says Brehm-Heeger. “So when you look inside from our plaza now, you can see an awful lot.”

Other improvements include a reimagined outdoor plaza at the north building, which also has a new roof, the new skylight over the Social Stairs, and a complete energy refit throughout. The children’s section is moving across Ninth Street to the south building.

Better integrating the newer building into the downtown campus has been a priority since public backlash halted a proposal by the library board to move departments out of the building and seek 3CDC’s help in finding a new use or new owner. Trustees changed their mind and in 2018 won voter approval for the critical new tax levy that kickstarted this renovation work.

At the conclusion of my video interview with Brehm-Heeger and the architects, she brings up a different perspective of the main library improvements. The project isn’t just about the library’s future, she says, but about downtown’s future in this post-COVID era in which no one can rely on the way things once were—when busy offices and their commuting workers would keep city streets, businesses, and public institutions busy. Getting back to that activity level, or adding something new that attracts visitors, is a key goal for leaders across Cincinnati.

“Any public area that can bring more people in is a better, more vibrant public area,” says Brehm-Heeger. “So trying to bring more people here and trying to get them to think about downtown as totally different is kind of what’s happening all around us.”

She mentions Court Street’s redesign and new attractions just a block north. “We want more activities of a varied nature downtown,” she says. “The more activity you have and the more dynamic the space, the less you have that kind of quiet ghost town feeling. I do think that’s a shared vision for everyone downtown. We’re hoping that the library is part of it, that we light a fire to come down and visit this area.”

So can the main library’s updating—and its showcase Social Stairs—now be called a post-COVID project? “One hundred percent,” she says.

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