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Ghosts of Chocolate Cigars to Waft Over Hungry Minds

Even seasoned New Yorkers may be unfamiliar with Jersey Street. It's more alley than avenue, tucked between Mulberry and Lafayette Streets like a quaint movie-set reminder of old Manhattan. But those who do know the block's history will tell you that No. 10 was where the Hawley & Hoops candy factory churned out chocolate cigarettes and cigars starting in the late 19th century.

The main reading room is some 30 feet below street level and occupies what had been the boiler room of the Hawley & Hoops candy factory.

Now, that brick-and-steel building, built in 1886, has been reincarnated as something neighborhood residents have wanted for years: a new library. The 87th branch in the New York Public Library system, it is to open in a public ceremony at 3 p.m. Monday.

"What we tried to do was bring a sophisticated library to a sophisticated community," said Paul LeClerc, the library system's president and chief executive. "I think the fact that it is in a historic building — not in a new structure — is important. It reminds people of the industrial history of that community."

The Mulberry Street branch, as it will be known, has been long in coming. Design work started nearly six years ago, right around 9/11, but the renovation did not begin until the fall of 2004. It will be the first new library branch in Manhattan since 1989, and the first ever in SoHo.

For the architecture firm Rogers Marvel, the project's challenges were considerable.

Much of the space, which was most recently occupied by a store, is below ground — only one floor is at street level — so planners had to design what is essentially a deep basement without making it feel like a basement.

The budget was limited: $6.1 million for 12,000 square feet. The entrance had to be accessible to the handicapped, but the sidewalk was too narrow for ramps to be added at street level.

The architects tried to turn the drawbacks into opportunities. They obtained permission from the city's Department of Transportation to raise the entire sidewalk, allowing room for a ramp to the entrance and permitting fresh air to flow underneath to the lower level. Lights beaming up through sidewalk grills now illuminate the entryway.

While the building's nooks, crannies and idiosyncrasies were something of a nightmare for the contractors, the architects made the most of them by carving out inviting reading areas. To accommodate pipes on the second level, the level just below the street, they lowered the ceiling and created a cozy story-hour corner with comfortable upholstered chairs.

In the space for older children on that level, the architects installed clear glass to give young visitors a front-row seat on Manhattan bedrock. "We wanted a Harry Potter dungeonlike atmosphere," said Jonathan Marvel, one of the principal architects. "So daytime or nighttime, you always feel like there's some mysterious thing going on outside."

In the central stairwell, they designed a staircase that allows the light to filter down from the street. The path of the staircase is indirect, requiring visitors to walk around as well as up and down. This reinforced the architects' theme of circulation — of air, light, people and books.

"You can't go directly to the next level; you have to wind your way around through bridges and landings," Mr. Marvel said. "It plays up the process of discovery — what book do you want to find?"

Above the third and lowest level, the architects used an existing opening as an overlook so visitors could gaze down upon what Mr. Marvel calls the building's "crown jewel": the old boiler vault, now the main reading room.

Anchored by the original cast-iron columns, this space, the library's largest, has an industrial grandeur, with the warmth of an exposed brick wall juxtaposed with the cool concrete floor. "We wanted this to feel like a college library, where you could get lost in the stacks," Mr. Marvel said. "We didn't want you to feel 30 feet below grade."

In honoring the surrounding area's original aesthetic, the architects were able to save money on materials. "SoHo is a cast-iron and masonry neighborhood, and all those materials are reflected in this space," Mr. Marvel said.

The staircase is made of industrial steel and concrete with mahogany handrails and perforated stainless-steel guardrails. The brick walls have been washed and left as is. The architects could have installed new flooring but instead refinished the original oak. "We wanted to save them in their beat-up and sloping nature," Mr. Marvel said. "It adds character and patina that you can't get from a new floor."

They arranged the children's information desks around the original steel columns in a doughnut formation. They used the existing arcade of granite piers to shape the young adult space and filled it with movable cushy chairs on casters designed to be practically indestructible. "It was a clear-cut case of the existing architecture becoming the inspiration for how the space was configured," Mr. Marvel said.

For the street-level floor, which features new books and the checkout counter, the architects turned one of the old ceiling beams into a rustic desk for the computer station.

To encourage people to hang out with their newspapers or laptops — the library is wired for Internet access — the architects lined the room with banquette seating. Mr. Marvel said the layout of long wooden benches was inspired by the old Staten Island Ferry.

"As museums have become co-opted by gift shops and high prices for entry," Mr. Marvel said, libraries and bookstores have reasserted their role as public gathering spaces.

"This is truly a neighborhood library," he said. "While SoHo has become an outdoor mall, here's a place for respite from the battles between art and commerce."

Source: New York Times