• A large curtain wall facing the street creates transparency to and from the main library space. - photo by Wade Griffith

Fort Worth’s Reby Cary Youth Library supports a new generation of learners.

Client City of Fort Worth
Architect KAI Enterprises
Contractor FPI Builders
Civil Engineer Carrillo Engineering
Structural Engineer JQ Infrastructure
MEP Engineer MEPCE
Landscape Architect Berkenbile Landscape Architects
AV/Technology Cedrick Frank Associates

Before interstate highways 30 and 20 ran through North Texas, there was the 1916 Bankhead Highway, the first all-weather transcontinental roadway built in the United States. Today, some of the original structures erected to accommodate travelers on that road — motels, gas stations, restaurants, and department stores — can still be seen in east Fort Worth, along the part of the old highway now known as East Lancaster Avenue. The Meadowbrook and Edgewood Terrace neighborhoods developed adjacent to the highway and, after a long period of decline, are now being reinvigorated by an influx of young couples and families seeking affordable housing options convenient to downtown. 

Although rich in history, Meadowbrook and Edgewood Terrace have lacked amenities catering to young children. With public feedback from neighborhood residents, the Fort Worth Public Library system and the architects at KAI Enterprises in Dallas came together to create a one-of-a-kind youth library designed to complement the urban fabric of the surrounding area. The 8,000-sf, $5.9 million Reby Cary Youth Library is named after the late Fort Worth educator and revered community activist Reby Cary, who spent his life breaking down cultural and racial divisions.  

The project program features a large outdoor sensory garden to encourage neighborhood gatherings, a maker space that utilizes technology for creative activities, two study areas, and a main library space filled with an abundance of natural light. Instead of a traditional library layout with tall, stacked bookshelves, the main space contains low shelving and moveable seating designed to reinforce collaboration, openness, and flexibility throughout. This has the added benefit of creating a scale appropriate to a child’s eye level. (I only fully appreciated how well this works once I got down on my knees to view the space from the perspective of a child.) A multipurpose gathering area at one end features generous views into the sensory garden and accommodates play activities and regular storytelling by neighborhood volunteers. 

The library building is prominently pushed to the southern edge of the site with parking located behind it to the north, creating a strong direct connection to East Lancaster Avenue. The large curtain wall facing the street creates transparency to and from the main library space; it also reinforces the urban street edge while providing visual connection to the surrounding walkable neighborhood and related public transportation stops. A separate adjacent children’s park on site complements the library’s mission. The swooping roofline and canted curtain walls on the west and east ends emulate the motion of traffic in a nod to the glory days of the old Bankhead Highway during the 1950s and ’60s. At the same time, the motif of the fiber cement siding facing the parking area and surrounding the sheltered rear entry is intended to emulate the look of books arranged on a shelf. 

The success of many building projects hinges on a designer’s reaction to the often opposing forces of vision and budget constraints. Walking south from the rear parking area toward the sheltered main entry, I was struck by the prominently exposed mechanical rooftop units. Normally, the first instinct of most designers is to hide or screen any rooftop equipment. Once I entered the building and settled in, I began to realize that perhaps this feature reflects a deliberate choice rather than an unresolved design bug. The RTUs are arranged end to end in a neat, straight line, giving the impression from the exterior of train cars like those visible on the still-active interurban rail line nearby. From the interior looking out, the units can be seen from the main library space below through a north-facing clerestory. A building must be heated and cooled, and, similarly, the equipment has to go somewhere. Sometimes, on a limited budget, it’s best to creatively acknowledge and honestly incorporate the elephant in the room rather than try to disguise it. In this case, doing so has resulted in a great learning opportunity for budding engineers and architects.  

Complementary to its public works projects, the city of Fort Worth maintains a robust public art program which requires projects to allocate two percent of their budgets to art. The artworks are carefully selected and implemented by a collaborative committee process involving both the public and artists. An art piece titled “Only Connect,” by the nationally known installation artist Joe O’Connell and his studio, Creative Machines of Tucson, Arizona, was chosen to be incorporated into the library. Spread across the entire ceiling of the main space, the interactive installation, made up of tiny glass balls and colored LED lights, is designed to appear as a net of neurons dancing overhead. At a low, floor-mounted scanning table, children can scan any colored object or book, including their own clothing, to instantly see that color move across the entire installation. Another fun addition to the piece is a set of interactive control buttons arranged and hidden throughout the library to encourage seek-and-find games. 

According to the library staff, few libraries exist nationally that cater specifically to children, young teens, and their caregivers. Opened in August 2021, the Reby Cary Youth Library is the only stand-alone facility of its type in North Texas. Although the library has no formal connection with the Fort Worth Independent School District, its goals of supporting early childhood literacy in all parts of the city actively overlap with those of the school district. The potential for the new library is bright. When I toured early one morning with KAI Enterprises’ Project Design Principal Derwin Broughton, AIA, the building was already bustling with activity. Now that a more normal time may be approaching, when we can begin to reconnect with each other post-COVID, Fort Worth hopes to see its newest library robustly supporting a new generation of learners on a path to successful reading, creativity, and critical thinking, in a world ever in need of these important skills. 

Lee Hill, AIA, is an artist and architect and works as a project director at VLK Architects in Fort Worth.

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