For decades, the Johnson Building of the Boston Public Library's central branch was a serious contender for Boston's most depressing reading spot.
With dark walls, a fleet of metal detectors, and windows guarded by imposing granite slabs, "it really felt like you were entering a cave, or a bunker," said library president David Leonard.
With Mayor Martin J. Walsh expected to mark the official opening of the revamped library Saturday, ending more thantwo years of renovations, eager readers and researchers will discover a completely remade space — one splashed with the color and vibrancy that has long been missing from the 1972 structure that had enough concrete for a sidewalk from here to outer space.
The auditorium of the Copley Square library sports cerulean chairs. The carpet is striped with orange. The lobby's columns, once made of cold stone, are now lined with the warm hues of maple wood. It's a striking contrast from the previous color scheme, which Leonard described with one word: "gray."
"Gone are the granite screens," he said. "Gone are the dark, tinted windows."
The day before the grand reopening, the library rang with the sound of saws and drilling, as construction workers hammered in last minute renovations. In their fluorescent yellow shirts and orange hard hats, they were outdone in color only by their surroundings. Staff members, led by Eamon Shelton, wound around the workers, receiving a tour of the updated facilities.
A sense of anticipation hung in the air.
"I'm excited for when the public comes in and starts using the space," said Shelton, the library's major projects program manager. "We've been designing it, building it, but we haven't had the opportunity to see how the public will react to it. I think it'll be different than even we imagined."
The focus of the $78 million renovation, which began in in the fall of 2013, has been increasing access. That means knocking down barriers, both metaphorically — with flashing touchscreens installed throughout the space — and literally: More than 1 million pounds of wall have been removed from between the Johnson Building and the McKim Building next door to create an open concourse.
Also on display are dozens of artistic treasures the library kept hidden in storage for years. In the newly outfitted fiction section — where shelves are painted red and futuristic orbs of light hang from the ceiling — several busts from the library's collections preside, including a 19th century figure of the Greek goddess Psyche. Another of Maya Angelou watches over readers facing Exeter Street.
"Some pieces of our collection are as impressive as the pieces you'd find in the Museum of Fine Arts," Leonard said.
"It's good that you have these things, but it's even better if they're used," he said.
Library staff said they also hope the renovations will attract new community partners. The building's lobby will play host to a joint cafe and radio studio for public station WGBH.
In the basement, a 3-D printer hums in a new business library, while upstairs, a world languages section features resources for new immigrants who are working to learn English or striving to become citizens.
Such a dramatic facelift of a building with historic landmark status required negotiation with the Boston Landmarks Commission, Leonard said. That board insisted the library preserve certain elements, such as window proportions, that linked the Johnson Building to the McKim.
But that didn't mean they wanted everything to look original.
Rather than pushing for the appearance of authenticity everywhere, the commission asked that the library "make the changes bold in their own right, so you could be able to tell what's historic and what's new," he said.
The result is a central library both freighted with history and illuminated with modernity. Its evolution through the years is especially apparent as one travels from the 1895 McKim Building to the Johnson, moving from the old into the new.
That physical manifestation of the city's history and growth is what first attracted Shuzhen Situ, a library assistant who was playing with the lobby's new touchscreens, to the job.
"And now it's even more obvious," she said with a smile.