Flint, MI—The Flint Public Library has received an Excellence in Design Merit Award from the Iowa Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). 

According to an Oct. 6, 2022 press release, the award is meant to recognize outstanding architecture projects designed by members of AIA Iowa, of which the Flint Public Library’s designer, OPN Architects, is one. 

“We’ve had so many people come through the library and be absolutely speechless. They say they have goosebumps, they have never seen a public library quite like this one,” said Kay Schwartz, the library’s director. “This award is an affirmation that other people who are in the profession of architecture agree with that.”

OPN Architects won the award during the AIA’s annual conference on Sept. 29, 2022, according to the release. The renovated library officially opened to the public back in May.

“They turned a 1950s building into something that feels new and fresh,” wrote the award jury, adding that the interior is “amazing” and they viewed the library as the kind of project that has “big impact” on its community.

Schwartz said she has already seen that impact happening in some of her favorite new spaces in the library.

“One of our big impetuses, well, our big drives, for seeking a renovation was that we had too small of a children’s area,” Schwartz said. 

Inside the children’s area, called the Ruth Rawlings Mott Children’s Learning Center, at the renovated Flint Public Library in Flint, Mich. on May 18, 2022. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

She explained that when the building was first constructed in 1958, it was a reference library, so children weren’t really a design consideration. But, over the years, staff experimented with adding child-friendly and caregiver spaces, like tinker-tables and comfortable seating, to seeming success.

“It had really transformed—even before the renovation—it had transformed the way people use the children’s room,” Schwartz explained. “They came more often. They stayed longer. They went home with more books, and so we knew we needed to do more of that and there wasn’t space in the old design.”

The library’s new design has more than doubled the size of the children’s room by moving it to another area of the building, she said. Plus, it features many interactive elements to keep kids engaged, like dolls, a fish tank and a wall installation that can be manually spun to different colors.

“That is absolutely my favorite [space],” Schwartz said, with a smile.

Retired Flint Public Library Communications Manager, Wanda Harden, demonstrates the spinning wall inside the renovated Flint Public Library in Flint, Mich. on May 18, 2022. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

The director also said she’s seen the impact of the library’s many new meeting spaces.

“Everything from, you know, a business meeting, to board meetings of organizations, studying, tutoring. It’s just so amazing,” Schwartz said. “People did use our library for meetings [before the renovation] but there were no rooms, right? They just had to pick a table and gather around it.”

She said the use of the library’s meeting rooms now is “exploding” and she felt like the designers really “hit a home run” with them.

Schwartz said she hopes the AIA award is “the first of several” to come for the newly renovated library. But, she added, there may be at least one change to the building’s design before those potential accolades.

Last month, the library announced it would change its name to “Gloria Coles Flint Public Library” in honor of its former director, an African American woman who managed the library’s transition from Board of Education governance to an independent district library as well as spearheaded a millage campaign that provided the library with 2 mills of funding in perpetuity.

“We only have the name of the library on the exterior of the building, and we will be changing that once we get the District Library Agreement actually amended and approved by the state,” Schwartz said.

The director confirmed that she’s begun working with a lettering vendor to add Coles’ name to the building, but, given supply chain concerns and necessary approvals, she suspects that update to the library’s award-winning design is still a few months out.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....