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Cafe, WGBH studio coming to Boston Public Library

The 1970s Johnson Building until recently sat behind a stone wall; now, the BPL aims to draw more people in.Barry Chin/Globe Staff
The Catered Affair also operates the Courtyard Restaurant at the library. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

The hulking 1970s-era stone building appended to the stately 1895 Boston Public Library is about to make a bit of history of its own — housing a new library cafe and providing a satellite home to public radio and television.

The plan, part of the venerable institution’s bid to become more of a public space, will transform the first floor of the Johnson Building into an all-day cafe and WGBH satellite studio. The setup will allow pedestrians to watch live television and radio broadcasts through windows on Boylston and Exeter streets, in a Boston version of the street-level studio in New York’s Rockefeller Center for the “Today” show.


The plan, approved by the library’s board of trustees Tuesday, is part of a $78 million renovation to improve the appearance and functionality of the building, seen by many as uninspiring. The space is expected to open next summer.

“We believe this will help animate the space and provide a gathering spot for patrons of the library, as well as draw people into the Johnson Building,” said David Leonard, the library’s interim president.

The late mayor Thomas M. Menino started the renovation project in late 2013.

The plan is to modernize the facility to make it more aligned with what people see as a library of today, switching out musty old carpets and a structured floor plan for open spaces, places for group activities, and an atmosphere that is generally more welcoming.

The initial phase of the project converted the second floor into a new children’s library filled with bright colors.

The project is the latest transformation of the BPL — the first large, free municipal library in the country — from a beloved but underfunded civic institution to a modern facility that capitalizes on its beauty and grandeur to make money. The first contract with a caterer was signed in 2008, and dozens of weddings have since been celebrated in the stately McKim Building, the older structure to which the Johnson was attached.


In the latest project, Catered Affair, the Rockland events company hired in 2008 to cater events at the library, will operate the Newsfeed Cafe. The company currently operates the Map Room Cafe and the Courtyard Restaurant, both in the McKim Building.

A recent outside assessment of the library — conducted after the institution made national headlines last summer for misplacing valuable prints — has identified a need for more resources.

WGBH and Catered Affair are paying $135,000 per year to lease the space under a five-year contract. After hours, the 4,500-square-foot cafe and studio will serve as an events space, with the library charging groups that use it a rental fee.

The station was approached about a potential lease by an outside company hired by the library to search for vendors, said Ben Godley, the station’s chief operating officer. Godley said WGBH could not afford the lease on its own and asked Catered Affair to team up.

An early rendering of the Newsfeed Café at the Boston Public Library.Peter Darlow/Darlow Christ Architects/Darlow Christ Architects

The studio is WGBH’s first satellite station outside its Brighton newsroom and will be housed in an 800-square-foot open space in the same area as the cafe, which will be open during regular library hours, with limited table service in the evening.

Godley said the station intends to use the noise inside the library as ambient sound in its programs, but may have to close off part of the studio.


The station will probably record segments for the local program “Boston Public Radio,” a news podcast called “The Scrum,” and “Greater Boston,” a television news and analysis show, among other programs.

WBGH also intends to work with the library to offer yet-to-be-determined children’s programming.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to connect with the public to showcase the work that we do everyday in our newsroom and further our mission of educational services,” Godley said.

Plans call for the cafe to offer a combination of counter service and grab-and-go food, according to a proposal submitted to the library. Food will be prepared in an existing kitchen in the McKim Building.

The library issued an initial request for proposals in March.

More than 100 businesses and nonprofits were contacted, and the library received three applications, including one for a restaurant by Cafe ArtScience of Cambridge and a proposal for a cafe and retail store from Storytime Stories.

Renovations of the Johnson Building, designed by the noted architect Philip Johnson and opened in 1972, will make the structure more open to the street and create a public cafe.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @tarynluna.