When Walmart abandoned its store just off 83 and 281 in McAllen, Texas, it didn't move far. There are two Walmart Supercenters within a mile of its former location. In a south Texas town such as McAllen, land is cheap, and sometimes it's easier to pick up and start over than to try to renovate or rebuild.
If you're one of the world's largest coporations, that is. One lost building here or there might not mean much to Walmart, but a discarded shell of a store struck the city of McAllen as an opportunity—however unlikely—to site a new public library.
"I don't believe there's another library in the world that's 125,000 square feet on one floor," says Jack Poling, senior principal of the Minnesota-based firm Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle. Along with McAllen-based project lead Boultinghouse Simpson Architects, MS&R transformed McAllen's unwanted Walmart into McAllen Public Library.
Poling has led more than three dozen library projects for MS&R, but he describes McAllen Public Library as unique. Turning a supercenter into an information center, one whose organization would be readily apparent to library users, was a central challenge, he says. The vast library space is organized into four quadrants, with two paths dividing the space along north-south and east-west axes, and with large pennants denoting the organization of the spaces. The structure of the library—at two-and-a-half football fields in length—had to be made to work for staffers as well as users.
"Buildings that are too big, too cavernous, whatever it is, they [library visitors] won’t use it," Poling says. "Some people have made note of it, but most people don’t seem to notice that they’re in such a large library."
There were physical challenges with the interior project, too. It wasn't clear from the start whether the floor would hold for library floorloading. And while the roof may have beend designed to code, it didn't meet code when MS&R started the renovation in late 2008. Poling would have loved to add more skylights and light monitors, but the structure wouldn't allow for it.
McAllen itself is another challenge: The heat can be inhospitable to both materials and users. Poling notes that the city was the client, not the library, and that MS&R built the most-efficient and environmentally responsible project that they could for the cost. Not all the materials could be sourced in south Texas, but MS&R tried to use local and sustainable materials where possible, he says.
"I'd give us a middle-of-the-road grade on the project," Poling says, with regard to environmental impact. "It exceeded any goals that the city may have had."
The American Library Association concurs that the project is unique. McAllen Public Library picked up top honors from the International Interior Design Association and the Library Leadership and Management Association, a division of the American Library Association. The project won the 2012 Library Interior Design Competition for best project over 30,000 square feet—a limit it easily exceeded—as well as the best overall project.
UPDATE: This post has been updated to credit Boultinghouse Simpson Architects for the project's exterior.