Columnist Sarah McKee: Jones Library project too large and costly

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The moment it opened in 1928, the Jones Library was unique in American architecture.

Its comfortable, homelike rooms departed deliberately from Andrew Carnegie’s “Temple of Learning” library style. Patrons still find their cozy warmth appealing.

The 1993 addition’s exterior harmonizes so aptly with the 1928 building, it practically looks original, too. The town paid off this addition in 2010.

Recently, however, the library trustees applied to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners for a grant to take a wrecking ball and demolish it. The atrium, for example, would go. Its glass roof leaks. Caulking is futile. This needs a solution.

But the basement Woodbury Room would be demolished, as well. It seats about 125. Its renovation in 2012 cost $175,000.

The trustees also intend “selective demolition of the original 1928 structure….” That’s what they told the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Their grant application says “renovation.” Their diagrams, however, still show certain original fireplaces removed, and original walls demolished.

An adult circulation desk, for instance, would replace the elegant, first-floor office of founding director Charles Green who was Robert Frost’s first serious collector. In his walk-in safe Green secured his friend Frost’s hand-delivered first editions, posters for Frost’s poetry readings, and other memorabilia. This became the library’s world-famed collection. The alteration would wipe out literary as well as architectural history.

Overall, the new construction would result in a Jones Library more than one-third larger than at present. Most of the Kinsey Memorial Garden would be obliterated.

Despite downtown Amherst’s parking situation, an enlarged, first-floor “Woodbury Room” would seat 200. A new children’s crafts room would accommodate some 90 children with accompanying adults. English as a Second Language needs several additional tutoring rooms. It would get one more, for a total of four.

The second floor would have adult fiction and non-fiction, an adult reading room, a computer lab, four group-study rooms, more than 40 study tables, and more than 100 study chairs. The new teen room’s second story would extend there, as well.

One elevator would serve the entire building. Elevators predictably fail. In 2010, the library’s atrium elevator was out for 10 months. When the new elevator goes out, stairs would be the only way to reach the adult collections.

Notably, there would be no increase in the library’s collections. There is no office for a technology librarian, and no plan to hire one.

What would this cost? The estimated total, including interest at a rate of 3½ percent over 20 years, is $49.5 million. This also includes offsite library services during construction; new furniture, carpeting, computers; and a book-sorting machine. A potential state grant, $11.8 million, would leave Amherst taxpayers liable for $37.7 million.

How would this affect our library’s “feel”? The public got its first clue in July. Their comments included “sleek” and “brutalistic.” Check out the concept sketches in the library’s lobby, and see what you think. Additional information is at http://www.joneslibrary.org/buildingproject and www.saveourlibrary.net.

Instead of demolition and expansion, why not a library space planner to advise on reconfiguring the interior space? The Jones Library, furthermore, is one component of a townwide system. Shouldn’t we be considering a comprehensive, townwide plan?

The North Amherst Library has no public restrooms. It is not handicapped-accessible. Many want an addition to North Amherst. It’s feasible now, on land that the town just bought. The area around East Hadley Road lacks even a bookmobile.

Spring Town Meeting will vote on whether to approve the design of the trustees’ demolition/expansion project, and whether to approve their applying for, accepting, and spending any state grant.

Town Meeting will serve Amherst best by voting down both articles. This will help to preserve our historic Library, even while the Trustees pursue needed repairs. We can then envision together, and cooperate to procure, the 21st-century public library services the entire Town needs and deserves.

Sarah McKee, of Amherst, is a former president of the Jones Library trustees who is active with the Save Our Library Committee.