Sawyer Free Library's head trustee says he views the $25.1 million renovation plan to create a new, expanded library as an "Apollo 11 three-stage rocket."

Whether it truly flies over the coming months hinges on a number of factors, namely the success of an anticipated $16 million fundraising campaign.

"We're out of the atmosphere. We have a plan," library Board of Trustees' Chairman John Brennan said. "Now, with the plan, comes the question of raising the money around the plan and seeing whether it's feasible."

The decision to renovate the main library building rather than razing it and building anew came last week, when the trustees accepted that recommendation from the library's Building Committee. Library officials showcased the plans for residents and other visitors Monday at the library's and Gloucester Lyceum's Annual Meeting.

Renovation of the main building would be done in large part by upgrading and redesigning interior space, then building out the back of the building and leaving the existing facade and other amenities in place.

The idea of renovating the library was endorsed Monday by Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken. 

The mayor said there were a number of reasons for her support, including cost. A razing and reconstruction option as offered to the Building Committee last week by the design consultant Oudens Ello Architecture of Boston would have cost $25.7 million, Brennan said, noting that the project is to be privately funded. The city provides money for the library's operations — pegged at $1.32 million in the proposed budget for fiscal 2020 — but not for capital projects.

Romeo Theken had also endorsed a previous library project several years ago that never made it past the planning stages.

"When I was a city councilor, we had approved renovations," the mayor said, "and the renovations they wanted then (would have been) a wonderful project and 100 percent approved by the City Council and community. (But) a few years later, we were back to the same situation."

Design concepts

"It isn't a public library," Romeo Theken  said, "and when it comes to who will help fund the process, then we need to listen to the public."

Library officials have, to a large extent, done just. A January 2017 public meeting unearthed extensive opposition to tearing down the main building, designed by architect Donald Monell with a facade that pairs with that of the Cape Ann Museum, visible from Pleasant Street.

"I'm much happier personally with this design than I was with the other one," said Peter Feinstein, who heads the library's building committee.

He and Brennan both said they thought the concept — the designs spotlighted to date are not final, but represent the concept of renovations, both said — better reflect the views and the culture of the community.

They said the plans also reflect desires by the community to preserve aspects of the library building, which will grow from 19,769 square feet of working space to 27,000. Those community wishes include trying to preserve and maintain a 300-year-old beech tree at the front of the property, a small amphitheater on the north side, and the 1764 Saunders House, earmarked for preservation from the start.

"The tree is obviously old and not particularly healthy," Feinstein said, "but we will be spending to continue support for it and see how it works out."

Matter of feasibility

Brennan said the next step will be to meet with representatives of the Minnesota-based consulting firm Library Strategies, which Sawyer Free leaders have hired to assist with the essential fundraising drive. 

The Gloucester project has been awarded $9.03 million in building reimbursement money from the state's Board of Library Commissioners, and both groups are awaiting word on the next round of bond money to be approved by the Legislature. The reimbursement functions as a matching grant, and the library cannot go forward with its project without firming up its share of the cost.

"(Library Strategies) will help us with a feasibility study, to see if it's even feasible to do this," Brennan conceded. "We need to know whether it's feasible to go for the $16 million; at the same time, they may come back and tell us it's more realistic to go for $11 million. That's when we would have to make another decision."

Brennan said the idea of choosing renovation rather than new construction "might" allow for more flexibility in any forthcoming plans, though they may be a while in the works.

"The design process now goes on hiatus while the funding is raised to pay the architects for a final design," Feinstein said. "We've achieved a concept to the building that meets the desire for renovation. Now it's time to take the next steps."

Feinstein said the library's time frame, anticipated by the state library board bonding schedules, means construction could begin in 2023, with an opening in 2024 or 2025. That would allow the library the time to fund-raise.

The decision to renovate and — have that choice backed by the trustees — is a significant step, he said.

"This is a milestone, a real milestone for the library," Feinstein said. "It's the step we've been waiting for."

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