The New Orleans Main Library
Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library The New Orleans Main Library

In the mid-1950s, New Orleans firm Curtis and Davis won several P/A Awards, including two in 1957. One of these, the New Orleans Main Library, captured the essence of that firm’s response to the city’s hot, humid climate with a three-dimensional aluminum screen that wraps the top two floors, shading the glass walls from Louisiana’s intense sun. Screen walls had become a cliché and, as one P/A juror said, a way “to cover up bad design,” but the subtleties of this library show that such screens could also be used effectively in good design.

A simple, rectangular box, angled slightly to respect the view of City Hall from Elk Place, the library encloses a spatially rich interior. Entered through a circulation vestibule that projects below the screen, the library has a flexible plan of open public areas, glass-walled mezzanines, and services along the blank back wall. The vitality of the building occurs in section, with two-story reading rooms and a two-story “bridge” above that brings daylight deep into the building from third-floor patios. While that openness to the sky somewhat counters the efforts to shade the exterior, it does create an inviting interior that encourages patrons to “shop” for books, as Arthur Davis said.

Amid a library building-boom in New Orleans, the city now has a new main library on its wish list. But losing this iconic modern building—now somewhat hidden behind another screen, this time made of trees—would be a shame. It served the city well for more than 50 years and deserves to do so for many more.