A proposal to revamp the Elmhurst Library will double the floor and shelf space and bring state-of-the-art technology to one of the borough’s busiest branches. But it could require the sacrifice of the historical building that now houses the collection.
The fact that the community is in need of a larger library is not in dispute. After Jamaica’s Central Library and Flushing, Elmhurst is the most heavily utilized, with an annual circulation of 1.75 million. It is one- third of the size of the Flushing branch, which has an annual circulation of 2.5 million.
“It’s clear that something needed to be done in terms of providing a better level of service to the community and that’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, in that building,” said Joanne King, a spokeswoman for the Queens Library, on the prospect of keeping the original structure.
Preliminary plans for the new building were presented to Community Board 4 earlier this month. They call for a complete tear-down of the existing building and teh construction of a brand-new, three-story one.
Some of the challenges facing architects, who considered various ways of preserving the original structure, included how to outfit an older building with the latest technology. The cost of preservation could be prohibitive as well.
“They said it would take a million and a half dollars just to preserve the front wall, which is really a waste of funds,” said Tom McKenzie, president of the Newtown Civic Association, who saw the plans.
McKenzie is a longtime Elmhurst resident who considers himself a preservationist. The group he heads was founded in 1970 in order to fight a proposal to replace the library, which was experiencing very low circulation at the time.
Now he says he is willing to sacrifice the original brick facade for a more functional space. “I hate to see the old library go, but I understand that this can really give us what a library should be. We’ll have something to go along with a modern Elmhurst,” McKenzie added.
The original library is one of 1,689 free public libraries built in the country between 1883 and 1929 through funds provided by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Each boasts a distinct architectural style that was based on the community it was in.
The Elmhurst Library was opened in 1906 and cost about $46,000 to build. One of its key features at the time, a landscape of terraces, rock gardens and pools, has been retained to this day in the form of a communal garden and park area on three sides. The current proposal would increase that green space from 6,500 square feet to 9,960 square feet.
The original structure has been altered, with three different additions made over the years, and is not a landmark.
Marpillero Pollak Architects is the Manhattan firm charged with the project. They would not comment on their designs. The city Department of Design and Construction will not discuss the plans either, until they had been approved by the Mayor’s Office, something that could happen in a matter of days.
A design department spokesman did say that the library asked the architects to explore a wide range of options, including preserving all or part of the Carnegie building. The total tear-down was determined to be the easiest and most cost-effective way to double the space.
“No one wants to see a graceful structure demolished,” King said. But that concern she added, must be balanced with the needs of a growing community. “The architects will consider retaining some of the flavor of the original,” she added.
That could mean preserving some of the original elements and reinstalling them, or using materials that echo the 1900s architecture.
The plan calls for doubling the library’s existing space, from 14,800 to 29,600 square feet. The linear feet of the stack area will also grow from 2,100 to 4,850. Adult seating would be increased from 25 seats to 120, and 60 public use computers will be added to the existing 10.
More than $21.5 million has been secured for the project through Borough President Helen Marshall, the Mayor’s Office and Councilwoman Helen Sears. Construction is expected to be completed by 2010. The library still needs an additional $3 million to outfit the new building and fund a temporary branch while it is being built.
The plans must also be approved by the city before they can move ahead and are, King stressed, preliminary. “Anything and everything is subject to change,” she said.