Architecture and Design

Here’s Why Burton Barr Central Library Is Closed Until Next Summer

Looking southwest toward Burton Barr Central Library in August 2017.
Looking southwest toward Burton Barr Central Library in August 2017. Lynn Trimble
Downtown Phoenix's Burton Barr Central Library will remain closed until June 2018, due to flooding that occurred the evening of July 15.

That’s the latest update from Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher, who estimates that related repairs and renovation will run in the $6 to $8 million range.

Designed by Phoenix architect Will Bruder, Burton Barr Central Library is the flagship of the Phoenix Public Library’s 17-branch system. It opened in 1995.

Zuercher announced the news on Friday, August 18, during a press briefing at the library, along with library representatives including Lee Franklin, community relations manager for Phoenix Public Library.

Franklin has been providing regular updates for the public on the Phoenix Public Library website since the June 15 incident. Previously, patrons were told the library would be closed indefinitely.

Early reports indicated that flooding occurred due to a monsoon storm with 50 mph winds that lifted part of the library’s roofing, affecting a fire sprinkler system embedded inside it. When that system released water, it flooded the fifth floor. Then, that water traveled downward to every floor of the nearly 300,000-square-foot facility.

click to enlarge Stacks emptied of damaged books at Burton Barr Central Library. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Stacks emptied of damaged books at Burton Barr Central Library.
Lynn Trimble
But the exact nature of the damage, and the precise cause, is still under investigation.

Initial inspections have revealed some disturbing details, including significant problems with the library’s sprinkler system like corroded piping and broken air compressors.

Those issues are detailed in a report by Wiss, Janney, Eistner Associates Inc., an Illinois-based firm that specializes in investigating, analyzing, and designing repairs for historic and contemporary buildings. They've been working with the library to determine likely causes and needed fixes.

Here's what the report makes clear. Those corroded pipes allowed water from the sprinkler system to leak in the west portion of the building. That water then entered the northwest part of the building, where most of the library’s losses occurred.

Which brings us to two major questions: Who knew about those problems, and why weren’t they properly addressed?

More than 7,200 of Burton Barr’s Central Library’s 500,000-piece collection were damaged and discarded. Many remaining books have been moved to other branches, and most artworks are being stored offsite.

The building itself suffered considerable damage, which is still being assessed. Visible signs of the storm’s aftermath inside the library include concrete floors without carpet, open drywall, and remaining items wrapped in plastic.

Brycon Construction is currently assessing interior damage and creating a plan for needed repair and replacement work. That plan will include a timeline and cost details.

click to enlarge Entering the library on Friday, August 18. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Entering the library on Friday, August 18.
Lynn Trimble
At this point, Wiss, Janney, Eistner has identified two major items that need to be replaced — besides books, furniture, and other items — before the library can reopen.

The library needs a new roof and a new fifth-floor sprinkler system, according to the report.

Replacing the roof will likely cost $1.1 to $1.7 million, and take four to five months. Replacing the fifth-floor sprinkler system will take five to six months, and cost between $600,000 and $700,000.

Of course, repairs and renovations are only part of what needs to happen now.

The City is also dealing with insurance issues and the question of liability.

Previous inspection reports by Tempe-based RCI Systems note several problems with Burton Barr Central Library’s fire protection system.

In both August 2016 and May 2017, RCI Systems found pipes full of holes, which would leak if the system was tripped. And they identified several other factors that could result in flooding on the fifth floor and damage to the library.

Those factors are already being addressed, according to a written update that city manager Zuercher presented to Mayor Greg Stanton and the Phoenix City Council on August 10.

click to enlarge The Rare Book Room, where the vault protected books from water damage. - LYNN TRIMBLE
The Rare Book Room, where the vault protected books from water damage.
Lynn Trimble
Here’s what’s being done so far:

• The city’s law, public works, and audit departments have been assigned to review the roof and fire suppression system, to help understand what happened and why.

• The city’s finance and law departments are working with the insurance company to address which elements of the loss insurance will cover.

• The city’s budget and research department is working with the library department on the costs of restoring the building and continuing library services.

Any funds needed beyond those provided by insurance will require approval by the City Council.

The city is also reviewing maintenance records for all city buildings, Zuercher says.

In the interim, Phoenix Public Library is encouraging patrons to visit its 16 additional branches. Many Burton Barr Central Library staff, books, and programs have been moved to those locations, says Lee.

The four branches located closest to Burton Barr Central Library will have Sunday hours starting September 10 to help accommodate branch patrons needing library services in the interim. Those branches are Harmon, Yucca, Ocotillo, and Century.

Details, and regular updates, will be posted on the Phoenix Public Library website.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Lee Franklin as Lee Davis.
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble