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veritas Harvard University Library Notes, For Harvard Library Staff, Number 1325 May 2005

Houghton's Edison and Newman Room Reopens

When the Edison and Newman Room at Houghton Library reopened its doors on April 14, visitors found a room completely overhauled from top to bottom—fresh paint, glossy floors, a brand-new ceiling—but these surface updates are just the icing on the cake. The renovation that began last June went deep into the room's infrastructure, transforming a low-tech, poorly ventilated space into a high-tech, state-of-the-art exhibition area. What’s more, thanks to careful engineering, the room retains its original architectural appeal, maintaining a striking resemblance to its pre-renovation design.

Houghton Library first opened in 1942, and since that time the infrastructure of the Edison and Newman Room, its main exhibition space, had gone virtually untouched. Original fixtures, outdated wiring and lighting systems, and a lack of air conditioning all pointed to a much-needed renovation.

A full-scale overhaul was made possible by a generous gift from Julian I. Edison '51, MBA '53, Bernard A. Edison '49, MBA '51, and Andrew E. Newman '66, MBA '68, which provided construction funding as well an endowment to support programming in the room.

"New air handling, new lighting, new security, new fire prevention, new exhibition cases—the infrastructure of the room was completely upgraded," said Director of HCL Operations Paul Bellenoit, who, with Assistant Director of Operations Andy LaPlume, managed the project in collaboration with Houghton management.

Just after Commencement in June 2004, Houghton staff members began the three-month task of removing the incunabula that line the walls of the Edison and Newman Room. Once the collections were removed, the room's main door was sealed to isolate construction, and renovation began in earnest. For the next few months, one oversized window facing Widener Library served as the entry point for construction crews. "We built stairs outside the east entrance—took the window out and made it a door," said Bellenoit.

The ceiling, which had to be replaced, proved to be a tremendous challenge. The library feared that tampering with the ceiling might force a change in the room's acoustics, beloved by the musicians who perform there regularly. So the design team called in the sound engineers. Extensive sound testing prior to renovation helped engineers determine how to fashion the new ceiling to reproduce, as closely as possible, the same sound quality.

Lighting also was key. The room's two massive chandeliers were replaced by four smaller ones to better balance the light in what tends to be a dark room. Lighting designers added fiber-optic illumination—more conducive to rare collections—to the ceiling, bookcases, and new custom exhibition cases that were specially designed by Helmut Guenschel, who also designed the cases for the Mercator Globes in Pusey Library and the Gutenberg Bible in Widener.

The room also got a new paint job. "We had the original paint underneath color-tested, and this is what the computers told us," said Houghton Administrative Officer Dennis Marnon, gesturing to the freshly painted wall. The painting was tricky work, added Bellenoit—if crews applied too much paint to the finely detailed molding, its intricacies would be obscured.

As for the HVAC system, crews put in a lot of work to improve ventilation, add air conditioning, and bring it up to code. Never designed to circulate enough air for large audiences, the room used to get rather stuffy during performances. "We wanted to make it a more pleasurable experience for people who sit in here for long periods of time," said Marnon.

The security system was upgraded and the electrical system overhauled. Network jacks were added for easy data access, and the room now boasts a speaker system that blends into the surroundings.

On April 14, Houghton marked the official reopening of the Edison and Newman Room with the opening of a new exhibition, "A Miniature Lesson in the History of the Book: Miniature Books from the Library of Julian I. Edison, Class of 1951," and a reception in Mr. Edison's honor.


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