From 1979 to 2017, the Faulk Central Library served as the austere headquarters of our city’s public library system at 800 Guadalupe Street, a bunker-like concrete fortress of books renamed for late Austin storyteller John Henry Faulk in 1996 — and although downtown’s new Central Library has its charms, we’re still fond of the Faulk Building’s stern appearance courtesy of well-known local architects Jessen Associates.
Like the firm’s underrated work on the Teacher Retirement System of Texas HQ elsewhere downtown, the Faulk Building’s monumental form and geometric, concrete-heavy symmetry represents the influence of modernist design movements like New Formalism and Brutalism on civic architecture in the 1970s, creating buildings some find hard to love but that are nevertheless representative of a historical era and worthy of recognition. That’s why we’re excited to learn that the Texas Historical Commission will consider the Faulk Building’s application for admission to the National Register of Historic Places at its next State Board of Review meeting, taking place early next year on January 14, 2023.
In order to harmonize with the neighboring historic buildings as well as the growing and developing Central Business District, Jessen Associates, Inc. chose to use a minimal, dignified and modest New Formalist style. The exterior material is an off-white sand blasted architectural concrete—softer in appearance than brutalist concrete, but more modest than marble—which was chosen to complement the Cordova limestone of the Austin History Center. The height of the building was considered in the planning as well; originally supposed to be a high-rise building, upon selection of the particular site at 800 Guadalupe Street, the architects decided to maximize the horizontal planes of the site to avoid towering over the historic buildings nearby.
While respectful of the historic context of the site, the building achieves a monumentality appropriate for a civic building of such extensive planning, large budget, and the ambitions of a growing city. The interior was equipped with all the latest in library technology including a tele-lift system meant to mechanically transport books around the space. Technological advances of course come quickly, and although the tele-lift system was quickly outdated, the flexible open plan was able to accommodate later modern technologies such as computers.
Austin Central Library is exceptionally significant at the local level as a symbol of the city’s investment in postwar urban planning and development. A “heroic concrete” monument to Austin’s knowledge economy, the library is also an outstanding example of exposed concrete construction, bold scale, and emphatic profiles associated with this period of American architecture.
— John Henry Faulk Building NRHP Application
The building’s probable addition to the national register arrives as the city-owned structure kicks off a remodeling project to reconfigure the space as an extension of the Austin History Center, which currently occupies the 1933 building by renowned Austin architect Hugo Kuehne that served as the city’s central library until the Faulk Building went up in 1979. That means the History Center expanding its campus into the adjacent former library building makes sense as a full-circle, snake-eating-its-tail sort of thing — even if the two buildings represent hugely different architectural eras.
Described in current city permits as a bond-funded $12.6 million renovation of the 108,000-square-foot former library by the Public Works Department, the repurposing of the building on behalf of the History Center features architects Lord, Aeck & Sargent working with assistance from Limbacher & Godfrey, landscape architecture from Asakura Robinson, and engineering services from Jose I. Guerra, Inc.
The scope of work includes the renovation of the building’s library stacks for archival use by the center, the overhaul of interior mechanical systems and fire sprinklers, along with the addition of office space. Several modifications will be made to improve the building’s ADA accessibility and improve access between the existing history center building and the new facility, which are currently separated from one another by an alley and parking lot. The final and most visible renovation will be the all-important restoration of the building’s sandblasted concrete exterior facade, which despite its harsh angles has an intentional soft quality — and we’re confident the structure will look far more striking once a few decades of grime are washed off.