The new Billings Public Library, which will throw open its doors for the first time Monday, probably wouldn't have been built without the jump-start of a $2 million donation.
An anonymous benefactor, still known only as Mr. Smith, offered the donation in the fall of 2010, specifying that it be spent on hiring an architect to design a new library. His only stipulation was that the library was to be "architecturally significant."
"My understanding," Library Director Bill Cochran said, "is that Mr. Smith is very pleased with his investment in the community."
And though any large, publicly funded project is bound to have its critics, it's a safe bet that most visitors to the stunning new library will likewise be pleased, possibly amazed.
"It's going to be so cool to see the faces of people when they come in the first time," said Heather Leander, a library specialist who worked in the old building for 17 years.
The two-story, 66,000-square-foot, block-long library at the corner of North Broadway and Sixth Avenue North is striking enough from the outside, with its sheath of steel scrim on the north and south sides, and its huge bank of glass on the east end of the building.
But inside it is more striking still.
The old library, whatever its charms, was a renovated warehouse. The new library was designed by Will Bruder, an architect from Phoenix who had previously won awards for libraries he designed in Arizona and California.
The result is a comfortable, functional building that is also quite beautiful. There are eye-catching features everywhere one looks, from the 20-by-30-foot translucent dome in the center of the building to the 44-foot-high "story tower" that soars up from the children's department.
There are brightly colored glass walls and resin panels, a 100-foot-long reading table in the "great room" on the second floor, a reflecting pool backed by a large photograph of the Rims and, distributed throughout both floors, ultra-modern pieces of furniture.
Jim Peters, who retired as assistant library director in 2009 after 31 years in the old building, said he wasn't sure he would like to have been on hand for the move to the new library.
"At my age I'm not really big on change," he said. But he doesn't expect patrons to have any such qualms.
"I think the public's going to be blown away by it. ... It's going to be a landmark," he said.
Children's Librarian Cindy Patterson was already blown away.
"This is my children's department," she said during frantic preparations in late December. "It's the most amazing area ever."
In addition to the story tower — that's now the official name, replacing "story cone" — there is a children's play area, computer stations and a craft area with a sink and a concrete floor for easy cleanup.
And there is a lot more shelving in the children's department. One result, Patterson said, is that all the special collections of holiday books are on permanent display, rather than having to be brought up from the basement "one holiday at a time."
The story tower is capped by a translucent dome, so children can lie on the floor and look up at the sky while being read to. And because the tower is an enclosed room with a door, Patterson said, "We're not going to disrupt the rest of the library like we used to."
The only entrance to the library now is on the north side. After the old library is demolished and a parking lot and community garden are built early next summer, the main entrance will be on the south side.
Just inside the entrance is a 15-seat community room with an attached caterer's kitchen and a wall of windows looking out on what will be the garden. A 10-foot-high limestone wall will separate the garden from the parking lot.
In the lobby area, there are self-checkout stations and a help desk, a privately run coffeeshop and a small used-book store that will be run by the Friends of the Library. In the main area of the first floor there are popular materials, including CDs, DVDs, books on disc and large-print books.
In the center of the lobby is an elliptical patch of carpeting the same size and shape as an opening in the second floor and then the dome on the roof. On the second floor, the elliptical opening is enclosed with amber panels of resin.
The dome is technically known as an oculus, as is the opening on the second floor. Cochran said the long axis of the ellipse points due north.
The ceiling on the second floor gradually rises from the west end on North 29th Street to a height of 24 feet at the bank of windows on the east end on North Broadway.
The long reading table sits in the middle of the great room, and there are desks, study areas and chairs and tables scattered throughout the floor. On the south side of the great room is the teen area, which includes two crazy-angled, glass-sided work spaces.
Cochran said adults can walk through the area or browse the racks of teen materials, but security personnel or library employees will move them along if they attempt to sit down in the teen area or linger too long.
"We want teens to feel comfortable that this is their space," Cochran said.
The second floor is also home to the Montana Room and the genealogy room, a computer lab, two study rooms, a conference room and various configurations of public computers.
There will be free Wi-Fi access throughout the building, and there will also be 83 public-access computers, Cochran said. There is also a digitization room for digitizing historical records and photographs, plus a digital learning lab where young people will be able to experiment with video and music production.
Other notable features include the use of locally quarried stone and recycled or repurposed materials — including lots of paneling made from Wyoming snow fences. Wood salvaged from the old Underriner Motors building on the library site was used to face the outside of the story tower.
There are also solar collectors on the roof, motion-activated lighting throughout the building and a rainwater-collection system that will be used to irrigate the library's landscaping.
The wide-open layout of both floors, combined with lots of natural light, will make the whole building safer and more secure, Cochran said. The architect conferred with two Billings police officers who worked the downtown streets, soliciting their advice on safety and security.
Cochran said everyone will be welcome at the library, but everything possible will be done to ensure a safe, pleasant experience for all patrons.
"It is a delicate balance because we do take seriously our role as virtually the only place where the entire community can come," he said.
No one will be turned away based on appearance, Cochran said, but everyone will be asked to abide by common-sense rules of conduct. That means no swearing or loud talking, no fighting or intoxication, no running and no sleeping.
There are security cameras throughout the building. They won't zoom in close enough to see what anyone is reading or viewing, but they will be used to deal with incidents involving thefts, vandalism or other unlawful activity.
And there is steel shelving just inside the north entrance where people will be asked to stow things they aren't allowed to bring into the library. Basically, it will be like boarding a plane. Patrons can bring in the equivalent of a piece of luggage or bag small enough to fit in an overhead bin. Everything else — large luggage, duffel bags, sleeping bags — will have to be stowed on the open shelves.
Over the last several years, Cochran said, staff members have also had extensive training on working with people with mental illnesses.
The total cost of the new library will come to just about $20 million. Voters approved a $16 million bond issue to build it, and the library foundation raised $5 million, including Mr. Smith's $2 million donation.
Because nearly all of the remaining $3 million was in pledges, which can't be used to back a bond, the bond issue was set at $16 million. If all the pledges come in, taxpayers will be on the hook for only $13 million.
That's because the library was able to use $2 million in unallocated reserves — which it was saving for repairs to the old building if the bond issue failed — to pay for site excavation, asbestos abatement, utility relocation and demolition of the Underriner building.
Cochran said everything goes back to Mr. Smith's insistence on striking architecture, and his donation of $2 million to get the ball rolling.
"That's one of the most remarkable things to me," Cochran said. "I still can't quite believe that happened."