There are good things and bad things to say about decades of neglect at the Forum Building.
The bad news about the Capitol Complex’s Art Deco jewel: Peeling paint. Rattling room air conditioners. Computer cables tangled like the snakes from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Walls and woodwork dingy from cigar smoke.
The good news: A glorious canvas ready for a makeover. A two-year renovation will culminate with the return of the Pennsylvania Department of Education to its original home and, perhaps, a return of the State Library to its original glory. By late 2021, Pennsylvania’s full continuum of learning will share one building with modernized systems.
“We clearly know that serving the public today is quite a bit different than 1931,” noted Deputy Secretary/Commissioner for Libraries Glenn Miller.
Gutted & Renovated
What we call the Forum Building was erected in 1931 as the Education Building. The Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction occupied the space until most operations of the renamed Pennsylvania Department of Education moved to Market Street—into the disco-era building emblazoned with its “333” street address.
But in that move, the Office of Commonwealth Libraries stayed behind, amid the towering stacks of books and other materials housed in the State Library.
In this space, researchers have mined obscure journals for academic papers. Genealogists scrolled through microfilm census records or newspapers for gems of family history. The Pennsylvania State Police utilize the separate law library, on the building’s south side, for background checks. Need a 1980s DER report on stormwater drainage? It could be here, because the State Library is—in theory, at least—keeper of all state documents.
But even the mighty State Library—with its 3.7 million books and “newspapers, DVDs, pamphlets, maps, microfilm reels, manuscripts, and more,” in Miller’s words—has felt the impact of the internet age. Meanwhile, the entire Forum Building has become “largely vacant due to its functionally obsolete and inefficient mechanical and electrical systems,” according to Pennsylvania Department of General Services spokesperson Troy Thompson.
An $88 million project will upgrade and modernize mechanical, plumbing, electrical and life safety systems, including IT, throughout the building. Upper floors will be gutted and renovated “into modern office space” accommodating 800 people, up from 200 now, Thompson said.
“The project will take an 80-year-old building’s aging and outdated infrastructure, which has seen minimal upgrades over its lifespan, and convert it into modern, tenant-ready space with maximum occupancy,” he said.
Not that there aren’t some spaces worth saving in those nooks and crannies above the library. Miller took TheBurg’s writer and photographer into “the best office in the Capitol Complex”—his own.
Paneling and shelving in a light-hued wood, framed by dentil molding, line the walls. Glass doors open to a restored portico of tile floor and coffered ceiling painted in brilliant blue. Or maybe the ceiling is tiled. Hard to say because it’s soaring some 20 feet above, held up by massive columns. It all overlooks Soldiers’ Grove, the leafy space commemorating Pennsylvania’s Medal of Honor winners.
While the Capitol Preservation Committee restored the building’s law library to Art Deco faithfulness in recent years, the State Library side might not be so lucky. Restoration of the library’s elegant features, including ornate chandeliers and brass railings, depends on any money left over from renovations. More will be known when bids are opened this fall.
“Depending on the bids, the priority will be system replacements over historical restoration,” said Thompson.
As of last month, the renovations chased Office of Commonwealth Libraries bureaus to other state spaces. The popular Makerspace, where educators get professional development in sparking imaginative creations, and Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math classes (that’s STEM with an A, or STEAM), moved to the Pennsylvania State Museum.
The library services folks relocated to the Keystone Building, where the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s own library people “squished themselves down to about half,” said Miller. A handful of often-requested library materials will travel along, for a “scaled-down version of library services,” but patrons requesting any other materials must wait while their items are retrieved from the stacks.
The huge project, slated to begin in September, is “part of the governor’s desire to get people back in state-owned space on the Capitol campus,” said Miller.
PDE’s return, championed by Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, represents “a wonderful step forward, because it’ll reintegrate us back more directly into the department.” Separation, Rivera said, “limits your opportunity for serendipity to bump into people and collaborate.”
Proximity means more collaboration between libraries and early childhood education and K-12. The higher education offices mandate “includes adult literacy and adult education, and we do a lot of that in public libraries,” said Miller. “We could do more and will do more.”
Libraries and how they’re used have changed, Miller knows, but in a world of public and private siloes, they are emerging as “that third place, where I can go to connect with the rest of the people in my community.” And in an internet-age irony, librarians help patrons “navigate the chaos.”
“The only thing more prevalent than information on the internet is misinformation,” Miller said. “A professional librarian can and does help people sort through that.”
The Forum Building renovations encompass “a huge undertaking but will result in a building and space that the commonwealth will be able to use for many years to come and have full ownership of,” said Thompson.
Even in exile from his richly paneled office, Miller will probably keep referencing the quote etched into the Forum Building’s lobby, near the law library entrance.
“Law is the science of human conduct, derived from the past,” it reads. “Regard for the public welfare is the highest law.”
“I love that,” Miller said. “That to me speaks about library services and why we’re here. We’re here to take care of our fellow citizens and to serve them.”
For more information about The State Library of Pennsylvania’s renovation and move, visit www.statelibrary.pa.gov/Pages/moving.aspx.
Where Do I Go?
Effective June 1, the State Library of Pennsylvania scattered to several locations around the Capitol Complex in anticipation of the Forum’s two-year renovation.
- The Office of Commonwealth Libraries relocated to the state Department of Education building, 333 Market St., Harrisburg.
- The Bureau of State Library relocated to the Keystone Building, 400 North St., Harrisburg.
The State Library Digitalization Department and Markerspace/STEAM relocated to the State Museum of Pennsylvania, 300 North St., Harrisburg.