A Distinctive Midwestern Library Receives an Update that Retains Its Beloved Brutalist Character

2nd Place, Historic

One of the nation’s most distinctive Mid-Century Modern public libraries, the Arvonne Fraser Library in Minneapolis, opened in 1967. The building is set along the east bank of the Mississippi River in the Dinkytown neighborhood, adjacent to the University of Minnesota. The design of the building—constructed as a credit union in 1963 and then renovated and converted to a library four years later—is among the masterworks of the preeminent Modernist Ralph Rapson, who led the university’s school of architecture for 30 years. Rapson designed the original building and its inventive transformation to a library.


The 13,000-square-foot building is a singular example of Midwestern Brutalist architecture, consisting of a single-story concrete structure and basement. The building has long been recognized for its signature waffle slab roof. Sup- ported by a grid of exposed concrete columns, the structurally expressive roof appears to float above the library walls, which are capped with a continuous band of clerestory windows. Twenty-two skylights bring natural light into the interior, including three large apertures at the center. Rapson’s interior was also noted for its quirky “light scoops” that descended from the ceiling of the library’s boardroom.

In recent years, library administrators were challenged by several issues with the facility, including aging infrastructure, a leaking basement, limited accessibility, and an interior that was long past its prime in terms of accommodating modern library programming and technology. Because of its deteriorating condition, the building was once listed on the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota’s list of Ten Most Endangered Buildings. The library’s provenance and distinctive design, however, were well recognized by architectural historians and the general public alike.


Beginning in 2016, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners initiated a renovation process that would modernize the library while retaining its character-defining Modern features. A comprehensive facilities assessment explored numerous aspects, including site conditions, the exterior envelope, structural and building systems, security, technology and interior elements. The subsequent renovation restored the exterior, reimagined the interior, reclaimed the long-abandoned basement, improved public access and revamped exterior public spaces.

The project’s most dramatic intervention involved the decision to renovate and reopen the dark and windowless basement, which had not been used for many years because of water damage. The architectural team cut through the first floor, creating a large opening at the heart of the building that provides a dynamic and inviting connection between the two floors. Aligned to the original skylights, the opening floods the lower level with natural light and creates distinct views from the lower level up to the Modern waffle slab and sky. The design also opened up an original stair and paired it with an elevator, so the physical connection between the floors can be seen from the main entrance and new opening. The opening, new circulation desk and stacks share a light wood finish that softly contrasts with the original Rapson palette.

The renovation design preserved the unique and compelling geometry that defined Rapson’s original design, as well as its Modernist details, while making strategic modifications to the historic fabric to better serve the library’s needs. The project retained and repaired the original concrete site walls while adding an accessible entranceway and outdoor furniture. It retained and repaired all exterior windows, cleaned and reused brick and exposed concrete, and repaired original doors.

The renovation selectively removed some interior walls to allow for more natural light and views to the outdoors and provide better visual connections within the building for staff management and security. The boardroom, where Rapson’s playful light scoops were restored, has been converted into a children’s area. Contemporary furnishings reflect the building’s utilitarian yet elegant character with select pieces modeled on Rapson’s own designs. All new HVAC, life safety, and plumbing systems optimize energy efficiency and the conservation of natural resources. LED lighting was installed throughout. A new fire suppression system visually recedes into the waffle slab grid.

“This design embraces the Brutalism well. Love the playfulness of skylights/panels within the roof coffers and restoration of the light scoops. Opening through the ground floor to daylight the basement was the right move. Detailing with glass to maximize daylight penetration is well thought through.”

Ross Welch, AIA, NOMA, LEED Green Associate, associate,
Trivers, Metamorphosis Awards Judge

Retrofit Team

ARCHITECTS AND INTERIOR DESIGNERS: MacDonald & Mack Architects (firm of
record), with Quinn Evans Architects (collaborating firm and METAMORPHOSIS AWARD WINNER)


STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Mattson Macdonald Young

MEP ENGINEER: Nelson-Rudie & Associates

ACOUSTICS: Kvernstoen, Rönnholm and Associates



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