RAMSA unveils renovation and expansion to South Bend’s Main Library, designed to further revitalize downtown

The renovation of the existing library and the addition of the 40,000-square-foot Community Learning Center illustrates the critical role that libraries serve in spurring economic activity and also providing the surrounding community with modern and flexible spaces.

Since the 1900s, South Bend’s Main Library—part of the St. Joe County Public Library system—has been a critical anchor in downtown South Bend, Indiana. Faced with growing commercial and residential activity, along with a need to provide new and additional services to the main branch’s wide-ranging visitors, St. Joseph County, the City of South Bend, and the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County identified a unique opportunity to usher the library into a new era.

Together, they engaged award-winning New York–based architecture firm Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) to renovate and modernize the existing library and also transform an adjacent vacant lot into a brand new, 40,000-square-foot Community Learning Center with an outdoor courtyard. Over the past decade, South Bend’s downtown has been undergoing exciting revitalization, spurred by new investment, population growth, and urban activity. With more than 1,000 daily visitors in a city of 100,000 residents, the Main Library—which occupies a 3.4-acre block in the heart of the city—is a key node of activity in downtown and an economic driver for other local businesses.

The new 40,000 sq ft Community Learning Center, set on the site of a once vacant lot, and existing library now occupies an entire city block, creating a strong civic identity for the downtown.

Although the library has undergone several renovations over the decades, updates and new facilities were needed to offer additional services and address education, collaboration, digital equity, and career advancement.

“This main branch of the St. Joe County Public Library has long been at the center of life in downtown South Bend. Public libraries are so important to our cities and towns—but as times change, so do a community’s needs. We’ve created a new public space that serves the people of South Bend—by bringing folks back downtown, the library will be a cornerstone of the city’s redevelopment, reignite urban vibrancy, and catalyze economic activity in the area,” says Melissa DelVecchio, Partner and Director of Research of Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

The Community Education Center opens out to a new outdoor courtyard and features an intricate façade that honours the city’s architectural context and repurposes panels from the historic Avon Theater.

A new facility designed to meet a community’s changing needs

Located on the east side of Michigan Street, the new standalone Community Education Center has given a once-vacant lot a strong civic presence that is both pedestrian friendly and extends urban activity further down the street. This new center expands the library’s mission to include essential services and spaces for digital equity, career advancement, and meetings as an extension of the “City of Lifelong Learning” partnership between the City of South Bend and the Drucker Institute.

The design of this addition is informed by the surrounding architectural context and local materials. The exterior facade of buff-colored brick recalls the city’s historic train station, along with other brick and limestone buildings found in downtown South Bend. Terra-cotta panels from the Avon Theater, which had been razed in 2012, were salvaged and repurposed into the center’s facade. “As in most midwestern cities, South Bend lost many buildings to demolition in the postwar years, which left behind many vacant lots,” explains DelVecchio. “The library now occupies an entire city block. To us, giving the library greater prominence, creating new social as well as physical connections, and enhancing urban life in the downtown area were all very important.”

A new 252-seat auditorium hosts community performances and presentations.
The makerspace provides critical access to innovative technologies such as 3D printing and camera equipment.

The new Community Learning Center not only includes offices, classrooms, study spaces, and a coffee shop, but also a large computer lab and technology center with an attached makerspace. The computer lab provides city residents with free access to essential services and career advancement opportunities. Similarly, the technology center includes recording studios, camera equipment, Adobe Creative Cloud software, and even 3D-printing services and classes. During a series of public forums, the community expressed a need for accessible, flexible spaces to help local small-business owners. Addressing this need, the expanded center houses a range of free meeting rooms, along with a rentable event space.

“RAMSA understood the important role this building has in strengthening our city’s social fabric for generations to come. These spaces are ones where truly everyone is welcome, no matter what their needs are. From job hunting, to learning how to use a 3D printer, to housing meeting spaces for community groups, the Community Learning Center is a place where you can unlock a world of possibilities,” says Jennifer Henecke, Chief Engagement Officer at the St. Joe County Public Library.

The need for an on-site coffee shop was informed by community consultations.

A contextually informed and modern design

The St. Joe County Public Library has a long history as the center of South Bend civic life. In the early 20th century, the library occupied a small Victorian structure (no longer extant), followed by a modernist building in the late 1950s that was then concealed by a larger addition in the 1990s. RAMSA’s commitment to sustainability led them to utilize the existing structure while enhancing and enlivening the interior and exterior spaces—the addition of new windows combined with interior glass partitions transformed a once-inwardly focused space into one that was naturally lit and inviting, modernized, and capable of supporting many new types of services and programming.

As part of the library renovations, RAMSA collaborated with Boss design to create a new children’s play area that provide life-sized spaces for learning and exploration.
A teenage exhibition space hosts rotating interactive displays, such as vintage video games.

In addition to the new Community Learning Center, RAMSA renovated 85,000 square feet of the 116,000-square-foot existing library, increasing efficiency, updating finishes, and creating a new staircase to improve the flow of people. Spaces dedicated to teens and youth was another goal of the process. In collaboration with Boss Design, RAMSA created a new children’s play area with a life-sized storybook “house.” A dedicated teen space will host a variety of temporary displays and programs.

Seamless indoor–outdoor connections were central to the design as well. By renovating the exterior and replacing glass blocks with windows, the library benefits from an abundance of natural light and creates glimpses of the interiors for passersby on the street.

Interior spaces now enjoy an abundance of natural light.

Clever massing creates a popular green space

The existing library is connected to the new Community Education Center via a large south-facing courtyard. By separating the original library from the center, more natural light is brought inside, enhancing views and creating a strong visual relationship between the indoors and outdoors.

This much-needed greenspace at the center of the city has become an important public amenity filled with landscaping and public seating. The space, which is ringed by a glass arcade, has been designed with flexibility in mind, allowing it to serve different functions at various times of day. Much like the library, this new courtyard has become an important community space that is consistently vibrant, from the downtown workers who lunch there to the performances and community gatherings that take place in the evenings.

“In the short time that the library has been back open to the public, it’s been amazing to witness firsthand how much the community has embraced this building and begun to make it their own,” says Trish Coleman, former Chief Public Service Officer at the St. Joseph County Public Library. “Libraries are one of the few spaces in our cities that are truly open and accessible to everyone—and we’re so proud to have a building of this quality in downtown South Bend.”

A new green courtyard anchors the two buildings, adding much-needed greenspace to the downtown core.

Project Details:

Project Name: South Bend Main Library (St. Joe County Public Library system)
Client: St. Joseph County, City of South Bend, Community Foundation of St. Joseph County
Location: South Bend, Indiana
Architecture: Robert A.M. Stern Architects
Lead Designers: Robert Stern, Melissa DelVecchio
Architect of Record: Arkos Design
Completion Date: January 2022
Size: 171, 802
Photography: Miller + Miller Architectural Photography

About Robert A.M. Stern Architects

Robert A.M. Stern Architects, LLP, is an international architectural practice based in New York City offering architecture, urban planning, landscape, and interior design services. For more than 50 years, the practice has remained committed to architecture as an art and a profession. As a leading design firm with expertise in residential, commercial, and institutional projects, RAMSA believes buildings must gracefully satisfy clients’ needs while speaking to the public and elevating everyday life. The firm maintains an attention to detail and commitment to design quality which has earned international recognition, numerous awards and citations for design excellence. https://www.ramsa.com/