Library debate: to raze or expand   

PAUL BILODEAU/Staff file photo. The Sawyer Free Library on Dale Avenue in Gloucester. Plans are to expand the main building, or raze it and build anew.

The agency that reimburses communities for major library construction projects has asked the Legislature to authorize a new $250 million bond and raise the annual cap on capital spending to accelerate working and developing projects, such as one for a new or expanded Sawyer Free Library.

Even if approved, any new infusion of cash would not immediately speed Gloucester's project, Sawyer Free Library Executive Director Deborah Kelsey said. Library officials are still debating whether to raze the main wing and build anew or expand and renovate the main structure in a project targeting a 2023 or 2024 opening.

"I'd love it if we could have a shovel in the ground for 2023 for (Gloucester's) 400th (birthday celebration)," Kelsey said. "What a gift that would be to the people of Gloucester, and that's my fantasy, I guess. But I think that's only going to happen if more people make it their fantasy as well."

The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners last week filed a request with the Legislature for the new round of bond funding and to lift its capital spending cap of $20 million.

The commissioners say the added money is needed to see seven projects in the works and 18 on a waiting list through. The waiting list includes the Sawyer Free project, for which the state board has promised a $9 million reimbursement toward what looms as a $24 million project.

If the annual capital budget cap stays at $20 million, the last project on the waiting listed will be funded in 2028 and completed in 2033, commissioners said. They are asking to raise the cap to $25 million starting in fiscal 2020, which begins next July 1, to shorten the process.

“We’re hopeful that with the support of the library community, the Legislature, Gov. Baker and Lt. Gov, Karyn Polito that we will have the new bond and increased spending cap in place,” said state board Director James Lonergan. “These projects have an enormous impact on the communities they serve. Communities experience a revitalization and the library becomes an even more integral center of the community."

Sawyer Free's project

Kelsey said Gloucester's project is eighth on the 18-community waiting list, a position she views as "a good place to be." That's partly because once a community lands its reimbursement grant, it has six months to come up with the rest of the money to launch its project. A community can extend that period for another six months, but that would be a final deadline, Kelsey said.

Sawyer Free officials have hired the Minnesota-based Library Strategies consulting firm to help in its fundraising efforts but have yet to dive fully into the needed $15 million community fundraising effort. Library officials are seeking to carry out the building project without the use of any city taxpayer funds. The city covers the library's operating costs — this year budgeted at $1.13 million — but not generally capital work for the privately owned, publicly funded library.

The library has also hired the Newburyport-based Dore & Whittier as its project manager, Oudens Ello of Boston as designer for the main building and the preservationist architectural firm Spencer Sullivan & Vogt of Charlestown which will study uses and needs for the library's 1764 Saunders House. The Saunders House is to be preserved regardless of whether the main project takes a razing or renovation route.

Kelsey said the library project's needs, at this point, extend beyond a decision to expand or raze the 1976 wing and build a new facility.

"We have to decide what we need for green space, we have to find a way to connect the buildings (the main wing to the Saunders House, currently linked by a central building that includes the main entryway)," she said. "And we have to try to reach some consensus toward what the community wants."

The latter centers on whether to preserve the facade of the main wing while producing the desired 27,000 square feet of interior floor space compared to the current 19,600. The facade, designed by Donald Monell, was meant to reflect the facade of the Cape Ann Museum across Warren Street, and preserving it has drawn intense support from residents at virtually any community forum.

"There are differing perspectives on that," Kelsey said. "To some, it means to honor the look of Monell (perhaps through razing and replacing), others think it needs to actually be (the existing) Monell. It may be more costly to keep the facade.

"I think the next few months are going to be critical to figuring these things out," she said. "But we want to and have to create a library the community wants. So we still need time (before getting the state funding) to hear from people and make these decisions."

Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or


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