During a recent bookcase installation for the Monroe County History Center, one of the organization’s volunteers happened to walk through the room. He stopped for a moment, leaned back, and shared his assessment:
“Your basic wooden bookshelves.”
Not so fast, I wanted to reply. Granted, the bookcase is simple and made from wood. But getting the piece to look so right in its place–so unpretentious and natural that it would inspire this distinctly “underwhelmed” response–required a level of sophistication in space planning, period design, and carpentry that “your basic wooden bookshelves” doesn’t quite capture.
The design maximizes storage capacity while respecting the room’s spatial constraints and architectural character. What you cannot see behind the finished bookcases are the metal conduit, surface-mounted to the old brick walls and protruding approximately 1-1/2 inches; an electrical receptacle and junction box that needed to remain accessible; the fabulously irregular surfaces of the walls; and a floor that slopes dramatically from one end of the space to the other, in addition to presenting a large hump near its center, where another wall once stood.
Working with these site challenges was just the beginning of the design. The new bookcase also had to fit the room’s aesthetic. Although it would be installed in a Beaux Arts Carnegie Library, the primary public space of which is ornamented with cast acanthus leaves, elaborate crown molding, etc., the room for which I was designing is in the basement–a space that was never intended to be on display. Here, in contrast to the main floor, windows and doors are trimmed with plain square-edged fir casing. No crown molding, and certainly no fancy columns. To deck out this space with ornate built-ins would, in my view, have been an affront to the building and its history.
I designed the bookcase in seven sections that would fit together on site to become a single unit. Wherever possible, the face frames are “shared” to avoid the appearance of modular built-ins:
The backs are faced in oak and finished to match the rest of the bookcase. Shelves have solid edges to discourage sagging. The faces, counters, and trim are riftsawn red oak, finished to match the room’s original fir trim. (We considered using fir, but the cost was far higher than that of oak, which grows plentifully in our region.)
The bookcase had to be shimmed out from the wall by approximately 1-5/8 inches to clear the conduit. I used finished end panels, as well as the counter on the horizontal section, to conceal these gaps. Every piece of the bookcase that abuts a wall or part of the floor in this wonderful old room had to be scribed (cut or planed) to conform to quirky irregularities of the surfaces.
The completed bookcase, filled with beautiful old clothbound volumes, city directories, and colorful yearbooks from Bloomington High School and Indiana University, looks as though it might always have been where it now stands. “Your basic wooden bookshelves,” indeed. Yet the simplicity of this ensemble was anything but easy to achieve.
Thanks to Mark Longacre, who helped me deliver the bookcases on a Saturday in order to stay ahead of an approaching autumn storm, and Adam Bonney, who helped with the first day’s installation.