Though it hasn’t been around for nearly as long as many of downtown Jacksonville’s most ornate buildings, the Main Library at 303 N. Laura Street already ranks among the area’s most iconic and integral buildings.
The building, which opened in November 2005, had big shoes to fill before its construction even began. Not only was it set to replace the beloved Haydon Burns library, its future site also had to be cleared of multiple historic structures, including the Rhodes-Futch-Collins building, the Buckman and Ulmer building, and the South Atlantic Investment Corporation building.
Those demolitions took place in 2002, but the project itself began in 2000 with the approval of the Better Jacksonville Plan by local voters. The plan provided $95 million in allocated funds for the construction of a replacement for the existing Haydon Burns library building.
New York City-based architectural firm Robert A. M. Stern Architects, now known as RAMSA, was retained to design the new building, in collaboration with locally-based Rolland, DelValle, & Bradley. The team’s final design featured both classical and modern architectural elements and drew inspiration from one of RAMSA’s previous projects, the Nashville Public Library. Notable elements included a second-floor courtyard, named for local philanthropist Betsy Lovett, and “Wisdom,” a twenty-foot owl sculpture by artist Larry Kirkland.
Construction began on the five-story structure in 2003 and was completed by 2005 along with an accompanying 600-car garage across the street. As mentioned, the library opened its doors in November 2005.
Along with its courtyard, the library featured a 400-seat auditorium, several exhibition spaces, specialty sections including a special needs library and adult literacy program, a lounge room, and a café that has since closed. It also houses office space for the Jacksonville Public Library Foundation. In total, the new building provided 300,000 square feet of space – nearly three times as much as the Haydon Burns library.
The new library building has since added other unique spaces, including a “makerspace” with sewing machines, instruments, a green screen, and more that was added in 2016.
Today, the main library is an essential part of life in Jacksonville. The building’s space is utilized by creators, businesses, vendors, and even wedding parties. And its size and ornate nature should allow it to serve admirably as the city’s main library for many years to come – and to find a new purpose when the time comes for its replacement.