Some Gloucester residents say they’re worried that a $17.5 million plan to raze and rebuild the 40-year-old primary wing of the Sawyer Free Library may “orphan” the historic Saunders House that, for decades, served as the centerpiece of the property.

But the head of the library board says that — while the panel has not decided how it can use or what it may do with the 272-year-old Saunders facility — the board recognizes its significance and vows it will be preserved.

“We care deeply about the Saunders House,” said Gloucester attorney Meredith Fine, who serves as president of the library’s board of  directors. “I know there are many people in Gloucester who, for them, that is the library they grew up with. We certainly recognize that and will treat it with respect.”

Yet, the 1764 Saunders House does not have a role in the library’s current expansion plans, which call for razing the connecting building and the so-called 1976 wing that houses the vast majority of the library’s collections and service rooms.

That worries Mary Ellen Lepionka, who co-chairs the city’s Historical Commission. 

“We have to look into it to find what our options are,” Lepionka said Monday.

“We are (as a city commission) eligible for grants and acquisitions, and one possibility would be to perhaps convert it for use as a museum or for historic informational tours,” she said, adding she could also envision the Saunders House housing the city’s own archives collection, now stashed in the basement of City Hall. “But we have to be sure it is properly maintained. That’s my worry -- somebody has to come up with a plan for its maintenance and its use.”

The Saunders House was built by merchant Tomas Saunders and acquired in 1884 by Samuel Sawyer, who donated it for use as a library. it is owned, like the rest of the library, by the public but independent Sawyer Free Library/Gloucester Lyceum Corp. It continues to house the library’s officesand  some conference rooms and is used for a Wellspring House literacy program. But the offices would  be moved to the new wing, according to construction plans outlined last month and due to be presented at a public forum planned for Wednesday, Jan. 11.

While the library is budgeted to receive $943,453 in operating funds from the city this fiscal year, the library board is seeking to carry out its construction project using only a state grant and privately raised funds. The grant of $7 million-plus that the board will be seeking from the state Board of Library Commissioners later this month requires that all money be used for facilities that are compliant with federal Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility standards. The Saunders House is not, and cannot be made so.

“Even if that weren’t part of the grant, we would want everything to be accessible anyway,” said Fine. “But the issue we face is that it cannot be used for library purposes, because it cannot be made accessible. Once you can’t use it for library purposes, you have to look to something else.

“Could it be a place the arts and (Harbortown) cultural district could use? What role if any would Wellspring want to maintain? Those are good questions, but we’re not there yet,” said Fine.

Historical Commission member David Rhinelander says he’s “very concerned” about the Saunders House and its future, noting that preliminary plans show the house fully separated from the new, three-story wing. He also noted that old buildings, however historic, don’t maintain their structural composure without use and steady maintenance.  

“I wonder why they couldn’t keep some stacks in there,” he said referring to books the library has but does not place on public display. “They would not be accessible to the public anyway. But I do worry if it’s separated (from the rest of the library). Orphaned is a good word for it.  And I would be very disappointed if anything happened to that building. It’s a part of the old fabric of downtown Gloucester.”

Fine noted that the library corporation has, over the years, pumped as much as $400,000 into shoring up and preserving the Saunders building — “and we’re not going to give up on it now,” she said.

The board has until Jan. 26, she said, to filed its final grant application with the state panel.

“That’s one of the reasons we’re having this (Jan. 11) forum,” she said. “We felt we wanted to get as much community input into the plans as possible before we submit the final application. We want to hear people’s questions and concerns — and ideas.”

Staff Writer Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or via email at rlamont@gloucestertimes.com.

COMMUNITY FORUM

What: Discussion of plans for new Sawyer Free Library

When: Wednesday, Jan. 11, 6:30 p.m.

Where: Sawyer Free Library