A local landmark has reopened just in time for the hottest stretch of the summer season. 

After nearly a year, Burton Barr Central Library welcomed the public back on June 16, following a lengthy closure due to severe flood damage requiring multi-million-dollar repairs.

Last year, a July windstorm wreaked havoc on the beloved building, shaking the roof and releasing dust, which the smoke detection system mistook for smoke. As a result, the fire-sprinkler system filled with water as designed, but because there was no fire and no heat, the sprinkler heads did not pop off to automatically release the water. The water in the system then surged out of holes in the pipes caused by unaddressed corrosion.  

With 50 to 60 gallons of water per minute rushing out, all five floors of the library were affected and 6,000 books were damaged in the disastrous event.

Thankfully no one was inside at the time, but the building was closed immediately for repairs. In August 2017, Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher confirmed the $10 million renovations would not be finished until June 2018, leaving the nation’s fifth largest city without its flagship library. 

A city investigation concluded that the flooding was preventable, and several city employees had been warned multiple times about problems with the sprinkler system, including in a written report issued six weeks prior. In all, 11 city employees were fired, demoted or suspended as a result of the incident that cost the city millions and forced residents to find a different library.  

Facing a long road of renovations last year, library officials took advantage of the closure to pursue both previously planned and new projects to enhance the guest experience.

With the facility reopened, everyone from young professionals to senior citizens and parents with young kids are excited that Burton Barr is back up and running, with improvements that have impressed returning and new customers.  

“It’s been very exciting to welcome lots of our customers back,” said Lee Franklin, community relations manager for Phoenix Public Library. “Everybody is glad to have the library fully operational.” 

It’s a fresh start of sorts for the library as many advancements have arrived.

“The restoration restored parts of the building that were damaged with the water exposure, and there’s a lot that’s very familiar,” Franklin said. “When people come back in Burton Barr, the look and feel is what they will remember but there will be some areas where our services have been significantly enhanced.”  

From new art and history exhibits to convenient amenities, Burton Barr is succeeding in its mission to impress and create a more modern, customer-centric library experience.

There are small, sensible additions, like more power outlets for guests to charge their phones, tablets and laptops. Many are positioned next to new public computers on the second and fifth levels.  

Then there are more substantial changes, like the significant expansion of the children’s play areas and redesign of the story time space in the 14,000-square-foot Children’s Place on the first floor. Parents are especially pleased that the library more than tripled its children’s book collection, with many more titles and copies to choose from. There are also hands-on play pieces for learning and interaction for kids of all ages, along with a mini makerspace and a designated non-fiction area.  

For teens and young adults, or those who want to go back to school, the first floor College Depot has more than doubled in size to encompass upwards of 10,000 square feet. This free, full-service college access center now boasts a designated computer lab with 66 new computers, which the library will be using to host GED classes and educational sessions. Summer camps and focused workshops will meet in a brand-new auditorium space that didn’t exist before the flooding. On the fourth floor’s MACH1 area, changes to the computer labs and flooring have supported the creation of a makerspace where guests can participate in coding, robotics and even 3D printing.  

Franklin says the staff worked hard to get the library looking its best ahead of the big reopening, with many of the changes aimed toward increasing the capacity to serve more guests with more programs. 

“We were careful to be very respectful of the time the building was closed to the public and to get as many large-scale projects like that done as possible,” she said.   

Summer reading programs are in full swing at Burton Barr and the rest of the Phoenix public library system, which includes 16 branches throughout the Valley. For more: phoenixpubliclibrary.org. 

The origin of Burton Barr Library

In the late 1980s, the City of Phoenix was looking to build a new library. A bond issue had been passed, and the plan was to replace an older facility on McDowell Road with something new and modern. 

Enter architect Will Bruder. Self-trained, Bruder already had an accomplished career by the time he was tapped to head up the building of the new library in Phoenix along with DWL Architects. He had been a student of Italian architect Paolo Soleri, had helped design the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston with Gunnar Birkerts, and had been honored in 1987 with a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. 

The name chosen for the library was Burton Barr, after the former Republican Majority Leader of the Arizona House of Representatives. The building ended up being five stories tall, with a total of 280,000 square feet. Bruder and the DWL Architects ended up using a roof structure design which included shade sails on the north side of the building, and motorized louvers on the south side for improved sun control. One of the library’s most iconic designs is the open, one-acre reading room on the fifth floor, which is one of the largest reading rooms in the country. 

The Burton Barr Central Library opened in May of 1995.