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Library Reading Room Renovation Open House

The renovated-and-restored Library Reading Room, with replicated brass table lamps both providing bright lighting and outlets to power patrons' laptops

The newly renovated Library Reading Room in the Wisconsin Historical Society's historic headquarters building in Madison, one of the most beautiful and ornate architectural spaces in the state, will be open for free public tours during an open house on Friday and Saturday, April 23-24. Tours will depart regularly from 1 to 4 pm Friday and from 10 am to 3 pm Saturday. Seven months of painstaking restoration-and-renovation work has returned the room to the elegance of its original architectural style while furnishing the space to meet 21st-century library patrons' needs. The project restored historic details missing or obscured since a renovation undertaken in 1955, including a magnificent replicated stained-glass skylight in the room's 30-foot-high ceiling.

Marrying the Aesthetics of a Bygone Era with Modern Technology

The Library Reading Room in 1900
The Library Reading Room in 1900

Surrounding the central skylight, banks of ornately trimmed ceiling coffers with hanging lamps light the room from above while re-creations of the original bronze wall sconces illuminate the room's perimeter. The ceiling sparkles with color while the subtle tones of a historically appropriate paint scheme complement the room's Neoclassical architecture. New and restored tables and lounge furnishings give the room a warm and elegant character. Replicas of the massive brass table lamps that shone on the books of students in 1900 look just like the originals but now contain outlets in the bases to power laptop computers.

"The challenge we faced in this restoration-and-renovation project was to marry the aesthetics of 1900 with the technological needs of the 21st century," said Ellsworth Brown, The Ruth and Hartley Barker Director of the Society. "I think we met that challenge successfully."

Project's Success Seen in Rising Number of Patrons

A section of the re-created skylight
A section of the re-created skylight

The rising numbers of library patrons using the space demonstrates the project's remarkable success. With no advertising, just word of mouth, students have returned to the Library Reading Room in numbers seldom seen before, with visitation up by 17 percent from a year ago. Patrons are using the computers more heavily, and visitors are almost always sitting in the comfortable furniture reading books, working on laptops or just leaning back to gaze at the ceiling with its magnificent re-created skylight, a section of which is shown at right.

"It's wonderful to see the numbers of visitors to this grand room swell as word gets out about what we've done with it," said State Archivist Peter Gottlieb, who administers the Society's Division of Library-Archives. "While we have made the reading room more attractive and functional, we have also made a statement about the importance of knowledge and the collections that knowledge requires, by restoring the beauty and dignity of this space."

Funding the Renovation Work

Funding for the $2.9 million renovation-and-restoration project came from three principal sources: the State Building Commission, which funded the bricks and mortar, and combined support from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Library System and the Wisconsin Historical Foundation, which raised funds privately to fund furnishings and equipment necessary to meet the needs of a modern audience.

Staff of Isthmus Architecture worked with the Historical Society's own librarians and preservationists to develop plans for the renovation. Skilled craftspeople and managers from J.H. Findorff & Son, the general contractor, carried out the project with great attention to detail and completed the work on time. Staff from the Department of Administration oversaw all aspects of the project.

:: Posted April 21, 2010

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