It wasn’t so long ago that Kevin Stern worked in the Dallas Theological Seminary’s old book center – called a book “room” back then – that he can’t remember some of its more colorful details.

“Oranges and browns,” says Stern of the decidedly ’70s décor he associates with the old space. “Most of the aisles were ‘dead’ aisles, so that if you wandered down the aisle, and somebody came in after you, you couldn’t get out. The ceilings were maybe eight feet high. Anybody who was at the old space would have described it as claustrophobic, and it’s true. We had way too much in too small a space.”

OK, obviously it was a bit dated and a little cramped, but was it really that bad?

“Whatever you’re picturing in your mind, it’s even more hideous than that. For everyone who remembers the old space, it’s kind of a bad memory of the past.”

And a thing of the past it is, because Stern, director of the DTS Book Center and a neighborhood resident, and his staff have some pretty amazing digs now. In the mid-’90s, the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church decided to build a new church uptown, and it fell to DTS, whose campus surrounded the church’s sanctuary, to take over the site.

After using the building as a sort of secondary chapel for a few years, the campus’ powers-that-be decided to overhaul it. That’s where another neighborhood resident, Kelly McCarthy of McCarthy Hammers Architects, came onboard.

McCarthy, who worked on smaller projects for DTS in past years, was offered the challenge of turning the former worship area into a retail space for the campus of about 1,500 students.

He was eager for the opportunity – “the potential was there for it to really be something special, and it’s exciting to have that fundamentally to start with” – but he also knew there would be many challenges involved.

First, McCarthy, Stern and all involved had three months between spring and fall semesters to renovate the building. That realization didn’t make the other problems that loomed on the horizon any easier.

“We were trying to stuff a lot of activity and function and people into a relatively small space,” he says. And while 20-foot-high columns and 35-foot ceilings in the main worship area were beautiful details, they did create some challenges to work around.

“It was kind of problematic…I mean, how can you possibly do retail around these big columns?” he says now. “But architecturally, we were trying to look at things as challenges as opposed to problems.”

In the end, they decided to keep the ceilings unobstructed, casting aside notions of grid lighting. And those columns? They stayed too, and eventually McCarthy and Stern found a way to incorporate them into the design concept.

“We ended up creating these pockets (between columns) where you would designate each cove a singular event for each category of books.”

For instance, sandwiched between two columns, you might find a CD section or a children’s books section.

McCarthy calls Stern a “very aggressive, insightful client.”

“He knew exactly what he wanted and brought a lot of very specific ideas and enthusiasm to the table. It was nice to have that kind of input.”

And part of what Stern wanted was for the book center’s design and renovation to fall in line with the seminary’s educational intentions and the “thinking of the entire campus community.” As McCarthy phrased it, that “as we do things, we send a message about intentionally choosing some form of excellence.”

“They were concerned that as they put this center together, they used materials that were oriented toward something that was kind of a serious, academic approach,” McCarthy says. “Something that bespoke the depth and nature of what they had in stock.”

Bookshelves and cabinetry for multimedia centers are made of cherry veneer millwork. Green slate tile covers the floor and a few old pews from the Greek church were kept as places to sit down and thumb through a book.

“We used materials that are evocative of warmth, depth and a certain amount of stability,” McCarthy says.

But even though both men took the project so seriously, it would be a misconception to say that Stern and McCarthy didn’t have some fun with the renovation, and it’s obvious. The book center is a light and open space, filled with music and color.

“We looked at the capitals (on the tops of the columns) as an opportunity to really have some fun,” McCarthy says. “From a restoration standpoint, it’s not very often that you find a space where you have the ability to play up antiquated details like the column capitals, something really rich in detail. We looked at those as exclamation points of color.”

But, he says, they also wanted to make sure whatever hues they picked were “evocative of the seminary in general.”

So they went with four main colors: purple (“a regal, king-oriented color”); gold (symbolic of resurrection); green (“the Bible talks about Christ leading you through green pastures,” McCarthy says. “There’s a sense of comfort and assistance.”); and a smattering of red (symbolic of Christ’s blood).

What Stern and McCarthy have done with this building is nothing short of a resurrection. While Stern says the new space is a scant 150-square-feet larger than the old book center, he says “because of the design of it, the difference is night and day.”

McCarthy agrees, adding: “The whole package has a contemporary feel, but it’s not faddish. It’s become somewhat timeless, in tune with the institution itself.”