Sawyer Free trustees eye renovation

PAUL BILODEAU/Staff photo. Specifics about plans to renovate  Sawyer Free Library on Dale Avenue will be outlined at Monday's Annual Meeting of the library's trustees. The public is invited.

The new incarnation of Sawyer Free Library would be better achieved by spending a projected $25.1 million to renovate the building, rather than razing it and constructing of a new facility, the library's building committee is recommending.

The decision of whether to build a new primary wing, or renovate while preserving the library's facade and other qualities has been at the forefront of debate since a new construction plan sparked heated community criticism after a public hearing in January 2017.

The trustees face a decision on the library plan as part of Sawyer Free's Annual Meeting. The meeting is open to the public and is set for Monday from 6 to 8:30 p.m. in the library.

The building committee recommended to the trustees Wednesday night that the library undertake a massive renovation rather than tearing down the main building, which dates to 1976, said John Brennan, chairman of the library's Board of Trustees.

"Essentially, we will meet a lot of our goals with that, but we will also get a new facility that will be what the community has been asking for — preservation of the (Donald) Monell facade, and in keeping with the steps we need to provide the best library services we can for the people of Gloucester," Brennan said.

The cost estimates outlined by Oudens and Ello Architecture of Boston for the two projects came in at $25.7 million for the demolition and new construction of the main wing compared to more than $25.1 million for the renovation project, Brennan said.

In the plans

More specifics about the plans will be outlined by Oudens Ello representatives at Monday's Annual Meeting, Brennan said. In general, the renovation holds to the promise of boosting the library's interior square footage from 19,769 square feet to 27,000 to offer a variety of additional programs and more hospitable space for visitors.

The renovation also will focus on the building's interior and a buildout of the rear of the building. That space is the library's main parking lot, and Brennan said the project will take up some of that space. That option, raised by a number of residents at the oft-contentious January 2017 hearing, will allow library officials to maintain a facade that was designed by architect Donald Monell to fit with the community within in Gloucester's Harborlight Preservation District. Monell also created the facade to reflect the front of the Cape Ann Museum across Warren Street, the short street that passes from Pleasant Street to Dale Avenue in front of City Hall. The renovation would not affect the library's amphitheater, which drew extensive public support when it was proposed for dissolution two years ago.

Brennan and other library officials have emphasized from the start that any plans would preserve the historic Saunders House, which dates to 1764. Brennan said Thursday that the board has not decided yet on what the future holds for the central linking piece of the library, which serves as the front entryway and connects the Saunders House to the Monell building.

Fundraising ahead

Sawyer Free has been assured of getting $9.023 million in reimbursement for its project from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, which hands out cash in rounds of funding. The next round tentatively is up for announcement later this year.

The state library commissioners have asked the Legislature for a new round of bond funding for fiscal 2020, which begins July 1, and to lift its capital spending cap of $20 million. Commissioners have said the added money is needed to see through seven projects in the works and 18 on its waiting list. Sawyer Free Executive Director Deborah Kelsey has said the local project is eighth on the state list.

Brennan emphasized that the project will be privately funded. Sawyer Free officials have hired the Minnesota-based consulting firm Library Strategies to help in its fundraising efforts, but have yet to fully tackle what looms as a $16 million community fundraising effort to bridge the gap between the project cost and the state library reimbursement.

The city covers the library's operating costs, budgeted for this fiscal year at $1.13 million. The library's capital work, including this project, is largely carried out with private funding for an organization that is owned by a private corporation but draws public financial support.

"The $64,000 question here is raising the funds," Brennan said. "But we have gotten to a place where we have a plan, a plan we feel is appealing to the community, one that's pleasing to donors, and one that offers big steps in terms of what we can offer for library services in Gloucester.

"It's been 2 1/2 years of listening, having meetings, talking to people," he added, "but we feel good about this."

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


What: Annual meeting of the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library Corporation, including presentation of plans for the library's future and discussion and anticipated vote by Board of Ttrustees.

On the table: The library's building committee has recommended the facility be renovated as opposed to an all-new construction. Also, the meeting will include remarks by Trustees Chairman John Brennan and Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken; the introduction of new corporation and trustees members; presentation of the Mary M. Weissblum Volunteer Award; and guest speaker Amy Lannon, director of  Reading Public Library.

When: Monday, May 20, 6 to 8:30 p.m.

Where: Sawyer Free Library, 2 Dale Ave.

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