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Its stacks, reading rooms, and offices already renovated, climate controlled, and rewired for the twenty-first century, the time had come to spruce up Widener Library’s exterior, the most visible of campus building projects during the prime construction season from Commencement to Labor Day.

Renewing the Widener steps
Photograph by Jim Harrison

The cosmetic work turned out, unsurprisingly, to be a big job. Scaffolding covered the façade facing Tercentenary Theatre (the only side budgeted for treatment so far). A waterproof tunnel ascended the steps so scholars could gain safe access to the front door. The library’s familiar face disappeared in a gauze of green netting, like a client undergoing an herbal treatment at a spa.

And so the washing began. The limestone capitals of Widener’s massive columns were spray-saturated with water and then power-hosed to peel off grime. (Note to those summering outside Cambridge: the same process is being applied to the western wall of Grand Central Terminal in New York City.)

Patrons will be able to enter Widener Library with a surer step once the entry stairs are reconstructed with appropriately colored mortar (samples shown above right). The limestone capitals (right) got a thorough cleaning, too.

Photographs by Jim Harrison

The brick walls were repointed where necessary. Like rotten teeth, corroded sections of the stone facing on the parapets flanking the wide entry stairs were chiseled out. The resulting gaps were repaired with a fresh limestone inlay, each piece carefully cut and fit, then delicately mortared into place.

The troublesome stairs, which have shed their grout almost annually, got a good working-over. Early in the project, workers chipped out some of the old joining material and mixed up new batches in a variety of tints (see photo, above). A satisfactory mix having been chosen, the joints between every piece of granite were then cleaned out, repacked, and sealed anew. The three bottom courses were lifted out of place, reseated on more substantial subsurfaces, nudged back into position, and mortared home.

Will anyone notice next June, when Widener’s steps are again covered with Commencement throngs and the columns serve as outsized stanchions for crimson banners? Who knows? But the books within will be secure in a better-looking, more weatherproof Widener Library.