North America

Mount Angel Abbey Library, St. Benedict, Oregon

December 26, 2007

PAULA HAMILTON

Exterior of Mount Angel Abbey LibraryMount Angel Abbey Library in St. Benedict, Oregon, has an unimposing façade, one that defies the stunning interior. The yellow brick exterior with flat roof and wooden slats over the windows was designed to be plain, in deference to the abbey church, the heart of the community of Benedictine men who pray five times a day.

The first time I actually went into the library, in the late 1970s, it was a startling surprise. I entered the building, walking past the beautiful art gallery with stone floors and large bay windows into the library itself. The sight before me took my breath away. The library is at once spiritual, serene, exciting, and academic. It is spiritual because it evokes meditation and prayer; the serene beauty of the space directs one's thoughts to God. Aalto’s design is serene and exciting at the same time. The library houses a carefully developed research collection where serious scholarship takes shape.

Mount Angel Abbey SyklightsLight floods in through the huge skylight, revealing the curved spaces and the beautifully designed birch furniture. The skylight’s expansive opening across the ceiling of the top floor was devised to follow the revolution of the sun. As a result, on sunny days the colorful books in the stacks glisten like gems against the curved white walls.

Years after my initial visit, I was hired to work in the Alvar Aalto Library. During my tenure as reference librarian and, later, director, I came to know every space, every piece of Aalto furniture, the strengths and weaknesses of the wonderful collection of resources. As an employee, I had the keys to the library and, despite living an hour away, I traveled to it early in the morning Mount Abbey and stayed late into the night. I witnessed the building at different times of day, in different seasons, and in different light. The long skylight on the roof was designed to capture every ounce of sunlight available throughout the day. Even on dark Oregon days, there is natural light filtering in to the top three floors. One can stand at the circulation desk just inside the library and see the lower mezzanine and beyond that to the book stacks that unfold in the shape of a fan on the floor below. At night the gallery and the adjacent auditorium as well as the gallery, the hallway, and the circulation desk are bathed with what appears to be moonlight. However, the illusion is created by artificial lights placed directly above circular well-lights which dot the ceiling.

Mount Angel Abbey Library was designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in the late 1960s.  Aalto had designed four libraries prior to being asked to create his fifth for the monks at Mount Angel. It was also to be his last library. It is his only library and one of only two Aalto buildings in the United States. The other building is Baker Dormitory, built along the Charles River at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

The late Barnabas Reasoner, who was a monk and the librarian at Mount Angel Abbey in the 1960s and early 1970s, saw a picture of an Aalto library while attending library school at the University of Chicago. After securing permission from Abbot Damian Jentges, Barnabas corresponded with the famous Finnish architect to ask if he might build a library for the monks in St. Benedict. Fr. Barnabas wrote a simple hand-written letter stating in a few sentences that Mount Angel Abbey was a gorgeous place located high above the farmland and vineyards of the Willamette Valley with views of mountains in the Cascade Range in Oregon and Washington. He told Aalto that the monks needed a beautiful, intelligent library to fill the appointed space. Then Fr. Barnabas awaited an answer.

The reply did not arrive for several months, but when it did the response was positive. Fr. Barnabas had accomplished a masterful coup d’etat! He had won the promise of an internationally acclaimed architect to design a library for the Benedictine monks and the surrounding community. Alvar Aalto knew nothing of the geography of Oregon nor the location of the small community of St. Benedict, but he was very familiar with the Benedictines and their centuries-old contribution to culture and education.

Before the construction of the Aalto building, the library at Mount Angel consisted of a smattering of book collections housed in such inconvenient places as the abbey attic and the seminary basement.  Now there would be a beautifully designed library at the center of the hilltop campus.  The Aalto library was dedicated in 1970 with the help of Richard Southern of Oxford University, who crowned the celebration with a superb lecture: “A Benedictine Library in a Disordered World.”  Duke Ellington and his band played a number of pieces, including one composed especially for the dedication by Ann Henry.

Mount Angel Abbey LibraryDespite the fact that the library at Mount Angel is nearly 40 years old, it is strikingly modern. New online systems have replaced the card catalog. Computers replace paper indices. But alongside the technology, the 15th century Books of Hours and other early manuscripts are still regularly displayed in the Rare Book Room. Light still illuminates the curved ceilings. The beautiful skylight and the wonder of Aalto’s design still whisper to the soul: “This is a place of sacredness.”

Paula Hamilton lives in Portland, Oregon.

Photo Credit: Mount Angel Abbey Library Staff

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