Stories read to the children of Billings will reach skyward from the Story Tower inside the new Billings Public Library. As the centerpiece of the Children’s Area, the sky is the limit in this elliptical-shaped room with a towering 44-foot tall skylight.
Seated in a red “throne,” children’s Librarian Cindy Patterson can recite tales short and tall to young audiences of up to 50 listeners perched on benches or ensconced in colorful pillows while seated on the floor. A glass door provides entrance into the space of limitless imagination as well as a peek into the happenings inside the tower.
During the design phase of the library when educating audiences about the new library, Phoenix-based architect Will Bruder often demonstrated the expression of delight from a child visiting the Story Tower for the first time. Enthusiastically he got on his back, lying on the floor, taking the vantage point of a young listener.
He portrayed the child’s unbelievable joy when gazing up into a vast cone-shaped skylight that reached for the skies. When stories are not being told in the Story Tower, Books and Babies, a program for tots 0 to 2 years and their parents, will read and sing in the space.
The 34-by-24-foot opening at the room’s ceiling reduces to a 14-by-10-foot opening at the top where LED lights illuminate the tower. At night the Billings sky above the tower will glow in magical colors. Though modern in idea and design, the tower utilizes refashioned materials secured locally from manmade and natural materials. The cone-shaped “tunnel” is lined on the lower portion with repurposed Wyoming snow fence wood and the upper with OSB (oriented strand board), engineered wood formed from layering strands of wood, while the exterior is faced with wood split from roof joists of the old Underriner Motors building.
Whimsy abounds in this room and throughout the Children’s Services area, consistent with Bruder’s belief that “The goal of the architecture in this area is to create an extremely exciting, fun, friendly and memorable environment for the children and families of Billings to be introduced to the magic of the book and reading.” Orange walls highlight the space balanced with earth-toned carpet. Bruder not only wanted to relay sensations of playfulness, but at the same time provide a sensation of place, of being in the West in Billings.
Bruder wanted “the space to encourage a sense of adventure and curiosity in the user. The room should be inviting as well as convenient to both child and parent.” The 7,600-square-foot space is what Patterson says “will be a destination and not out in the middle of an open library.” From the main entrance, the young visitor walks by The Rimrock Reflecting Pool, a 200-square-foot elliptical water feature gifted to the city of Billings from the Zink family in honor of their parents, Donald and Hermine Zink. A photo taken by nature photographer Michael Sample wraps around a portion of the pool. The photograph of the Sacrifice Cliffs signifies the importance of water in the region.
The design of the space purposefully encourages those who enter the Children’s Area to walk by staff. Billings architect Don Olsen says, “Essentially if you are not a kid or with a kid, you will be closely scrutinized as to why you are coming to the Children’s Area.” Olsen and his wife Kim of O2 Architects formed the local architectural team who worked closely with Bruder. Safety and friendliness are the two main goals of the children’s area. Olsen explains, “There are also two Children’s Area toilets so they do not have to go out and use the public toilets.”
The new Children’s Area provides countless resources and entertainment. Though books still dominate the space, Library Director Bill Cochran points out that new technology will also be available. “We’re going to have four internet workstations and four game computers in Children’s and we will start with one iPad, with plans to increase the number of iPads after testing them in the new environment.”
Customization for the child abounds for “The shelves are designed to accommodate children, the furniture is designed for kids to sit on and there are interactive units,” Patterson says. A First Five Years area that Bruder says is a “fun space with imaginative installations.” Here there are interactive equipment and play structures.
Patterson speaks with joy, “The Children’s staff is thrilled to have a bright, welcoming, and safe for the children to use the library.” From the mostly windowless corner of the current library, the new space will have doors that open to a children’s garden. By the open doors will be a new craft area that provides the option of creating in the outdoors.
Also, the added space provides for new programming possibilities. According to Patterson, “We are going to separate our craft sessions for age appropriateness so we will have more craft sessions. With the addition of the Children’s Garden we will be having gardening programs. We are also looking at after-school games. We have a lot of ideas and are working on the specifics.”
Though many stories will be told and read in the new Children’s Area in the Story Tower, the new Billings Public Library will help all children who enter to reach the sky’s limit of their potential and imagination.