Great challenge for Gennadius Library

The Gennadius Library is entering the 21st century with a complex program for overall renovation. The refurbishment of the Gennadius from the foundations up is divided into four phases and is progressing steadily. After the renovation and modernization of the central historic building, the second phase has already begun. The old building of the Gennadius, on the pine-clad foothills of Lycabettus, stands shining with its marble newly cleaned and its classical grandeur accentuated. This Athenian building was designed in 1923 by the American architect Stewart Thompson of the New York architectural firm Van Pelt and Thompson in Greek revival style. It now houses all the technological apparatus that will protect it from the corrosive effects of humidity for at least half a century. In any case, the time frame that has been set for the redevelopment and expansion of the Gennadius is to be at least 50 years. The renovation of the Gennadius stems from the library’s gradual independence, at least in economic terms, from the American School of Classical Studies, with which it has been associated administratively since its inception. A Board of Trustees was created with Lloyd E. Cotsen as president, allowing greater flexibility and more realistic goals. When the architect Haris Kaligas was elected director of the Gennadius in 1994, the library was facing severe problems with its infrastructure and in adapting to new international conditions. Space was limited and the infrastructure antiquated. «As soon as I saw the situation up close, I proposed a renovation plan that could be applied gradually,» Haris Kaligas tells us in her office inside the old building, where an intriguingly attractive mixture of Greek urbanization and American philhellenism engenders an atmosphere of deep cultivation. Haris Kaligas, who is entering her third term as director, is happy with the progress of the work. The old building is now fully equipped with state-of-the-art systems for fire security and environmental control. A large area beneath the reading room was dug out, enlarging the underground areas, where book storage and the super-modern engine room have been installed. The underground extension and partial renovation of the old central building made up Phase I, which has been successfully completed. Phase II, which turned out to be more complicated than originally foreseen, is now in progress. The construction of an east wing toward Anapiron Polemou Street, the foundation stone of which was laid by President Costis Stephanopoulos last February, was at first opposed by some of the local residents. An appeal to the Council of State resulted in a temporary suspension of work, but the inspection restored the integrity of the Gennadius. Work is now proceeding normally. Only four trees were chopped down, and a similar number planted. Others will be planted later. The gain: a new building designed in neoclassical style by architect Ioannis Vikelas, in total harmony with the old, and in which there will be an auditorium for lectures and functions, so sorely missed at present, and two underground floors for book storage. The auditorium will be named in honor of Lloyd E. Cotsen, the main benefactor of Phase II. Around 1970, architect Pavlos Mylonas designed an extension, urgently needed at the time, which housed a five-floor book archive. This space, near the auditorium currently under construction, will now house the library offices and the special rare books reading rooms. The new Rare Books Room will be dedicated to the memory of Ioannis V. Mandylas (sponsored by Kosmocar SA). Pavlos Mylonas had earlier worked at the Van Pelt and Thompson office in New York, and it was considered most fitting that he proceed with this work. Between 1936 and 1956, Thompson designed the extension to the library on the same site as the new east wing. Phase III of the Gennadius redevelopment involves turning the already existing west wing into a small museum with a separate entrance. In it will be exhibited some of the most important items in the library’s holdings, which ought to be accessible for educational purposes. The museum will also be able to organize exhibitions and broaden its collaborations with foreign institutes. Phase IV involves the gardens which currently surround the Gennadius. Thanks to the personal interest of former US Ambassador to Greece Nicholas Burns, the design of the garden will be completed by landscape gardeners Olin & Partners of Philadelphia. These four phases of the renovation are the great challenge for the Gennadius Library in the future. «There is a constant effort to expand the holdings,» Haris Kaligas tells us. The library has an annual budget of around $60,000 for acquisitions, while many books are donated, enriching the basic core of the collection. The Gennadius, on the principles laid down by its founder Ioannis Gennadius, is a focal point for the gathering of information showing the timeless nature of Hellenism. The effort now is to enrich the holdings for the periods after the foundation of Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire, Venetian rule, the Ottoman period, the first Greek Kingdom and the modern Greek State in general as well as the Balkan Wars are of interest to the Gennadius Library. In the past few years, with the acquisition of personal archives relating to recent periods of modern history (eg Seferis, Terzakis, Myrivilis, Sinopoulos), interest has focused on the 20th century as well. «Ion Dragoumis’s archive became available last year and is of great interest to scholars,» Haris Kaligas informs us. The world of the Gennadius Library, ready to become part of an international, modern network of exchange, contact and dialogue, with greater strengths than ever before, is now metaphorically and literally building new bridges to open up broader horizons.

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