Saving Xenia’s old library about more than ‘brick and mortar’

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Saving Xenia’s old library about more than ‘brick and mortar’

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Ty Greenlees
Officials are working to market the former Xenia Carnegie Library in hopes of finding a new tenant for the building, which has been vacant for 20 years. The library is located just a few blocks from the city center. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Xenia Mayor Marsha Bayless remembers going to the Carnegie Library on East Church Street as a child. She said the building played an important role in her family’s life.

The Classical-Revival style building, built in 1904, was one of the few public places Bayless and her friends’ families allowed them to go when the city was segregated in the mid-20th century.

“The library happened to be on the east side of town down the street from where we lived. We could go downtown but we didn’t go to the west side of town,” Bayless said.

Bayless is part of a citizens’ effort to find a new tenant for the county-owned building, which hasn’t functioned as a library since 1978 and has sat vacant for 20 years.

“It’s important to people to maintain these historic structures. It’s the only tie we have to the past,” Bayless said.

In 2015, Xenia Carnegie Library was added to the National Register of Historic Places through the volunteer efforts of residents Barbara Bradfute and Josephine Reno. That has opened up the possibility of up to 45 percent of federal and state tax credits, which is key in rehabilitating the property and finding a new tenant.

The citizens’ group Xenia Carnegie Library Friends are now engaging with the community to find out what residents would like to see happen with the building and by the fall, officials plan to narrow down the submissions and present the three best scenarios to city and county leaders.

Mary Crockett, Xenia’s community development and downtown coordinator, is taking a leading role on the project.

Crockett’s comments as to why the building should be preserved and “re-purposed” echoes comments from others who are passionate about saving it.

“It is breathtakingly beautiful despite the years of vacancy and worn finishes,” she said. “Right now, the city is keeping all options open to hear what the community thinks [and] desires.”

Saving the building fits in with the city’s goal of enlivening the downtown area and improving the neighborhood near Shawnee Park.

Crockett said the idea is to attract foundations and partners and to get the word out for people who may not know it’s here.

“Destroying such a building is not just brick and mortar. It destroys the history, geography, memories of people and their earlier lives and how they lived,” Crockett said. “At the same time, having it sit vacant and deteriorating inhibits pride and market value.”

Greene County Administrator Brandon Huddleson said from the county’s perspective, the historic designation was a possible barrier if the county is forced to demolish the building.

Huddleson said the historic places status opens up opportunities for grants, but those often require matching contributions.

“The County is fully supportive of the efforts to find an end user for the Carnegie Library,” he said. “We are very hopeful, with the efforts of the community, the building will be revived in some form and people will be able to enjoy the it again.”

The National registry has already led to grant money, which enabled the citizens’ group to hire Heritage Architectural Associates for a historic structure report.

Steven Avdakov, principal and owner of HAA, said the old Xenia library “is certainly in good condition.”

Aside from updating the building’s electric and plumbing systems and complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Avdakov said the main issue is the roof and drainage system, which has deteriorated and water has gotten into the building, damaging some of the finishes on the walls and ionic columns. The good thing is the water inundation has not caused any “structural damage.”

“The building is in excellent structural condition,” he said. “We have brought back other buildings that were far worse and got them ready for new adaptive uses.”

Mary Ellen Armentrout, a library historian and author of “Carnegie Libraries of Ohio: Our Cultural Heritage,” has visited all of Ohio’s 111 Carnegie Libraries. Armentrout spent five years researching Andrew Carnegie and the many libraries that were built in his name in Ohio. Her conclusion on the Xenia building: “This library is stunning.”

“You really need public support. You’ve got to have a building that people believe in,” Armentrout told a small crowd that gathered during her presentation at the Greene County Historical Society Wednesday. “I’ve seen a few cases where there’s no interest from anyone,” she said. “This is a piece of history that is slowly fading. In the end, you’re not only saving your culture, but you are saving your heritage.”

Armentrout said those communities that are able to rally and save their Carnegie Libraries see those buildings turn into viable, functioning spaces for private businesses used by lawyers, architects, dentists - even hair stylists. Others have been turned into fine-dining restaurants and arts centers, but “the majority of these buildings that have been redone are museums,” Armentrout said.

You can submit your ideas for the building by visiting the city’s website at www.ci.xenia.oh.us/744/Carnegie-Library.

5 quick facts about the Xenia Carnegie Library

  1. The Xenia Carnegie Library is one of 104 Carnegie libraries that were built in Ohio (Not including seven academic libraries built with Carnegie grants across the state). There were 2,509 built in various countries worldwide, including 1,795 in the U.S. from 1883 to 1929. Ohio has the third most Carnegie libraries in the country, according to Mary Ellen Armentrout who visited all of Ohio’s Carnegie libraries for her book “Carnegie Libraries of Ohio: Our Cultural Heritage.”
  2. The Xenia Carnegie Library came into existence after a group of women who were literary enthusiasts asked for and were granted $20,000 through the Andrew Carnegie library program. The ladies later applied for and were granted $3,500 to furnish it. Two members of the group, Louisa Lackey and Diana Roberts, donated part of their estate to be the site of the building, and their nephew, Pittsburgh-based architect and Bellefontaine native William Kauffman, volunteered to design it.
  3. Construction on the Classical-Revival style structure took about a year and was completed in 1904, furnished in 1905 and opened in grand fashion to the public in June 1906. The library operations were expanded in the 1920s with added branches in the county and a book mobile to transport books between the branches.
  4. The building was significantly damaged by the 1974 tornado, which blew down trees, damaged the stained-glass dome and destroyed the clay-tile roof. The middle school across the street to the west was completely destroyed in the storm. Approximately 2,000 books were lost at the library, and damage estimates ranged from $27,000 to $42,000. The stained-glass dome was repaired, but in 1978 the Xenia Carnegie Library was deemed too small for the growing community. It was shuttered and used as storage when a new, bigger library was built.
  5. The design of the building incorporated natural lighting as much as possible as the electric light bulb was still being developed in the early 1900s, and the second-floor of the building, like many of the Carnegie libraries around the world, is made of see-through cut glass, which enables light to pass through from the stained-glass dome roof to the first floor.

What people are saying

Xenia Mayor Marsha Bayless remembers the story of her uncle, who was a custodian at the Xenia Carnegie Library. She said her mother, who as a child in the 1920s walked her uncle to and from work after he became legally blind.

“They said he had lost his sight from looking up and cleaning the lights at the library,” Bayless said. “My mother as a child would walk him three blocks down the street everyday then do it again after he got off work.”

Brenda Myers, 77, and her husband Chuck, 75, live across the street from the dormant building. Brenda remembers going to the library to study. She hopes it will become a destination again for local residents, a place for afternoon tea where civic groups can get together.

“It was a place where we just felt comfortable,” Myers said. “You could smell all the wood and all the books. It smelled like a library. You just knew where you were.”

Chuck Myers said he’s open to the idea of seeing the building get used, but not an establishment for selling alcohol.

Jean Britton, 75, works at the Xenia Adult Recreation and Services Center, across the street from the building.

Britton said she remembers when it was a library. It was “all we had at the time” in terms of a library, she said.

Britton remembers one proposal was to bring the law library into the building. She remembers when a couple moved into the basement and tried to have a wedding planning business there.

She said she’s excited about the idea of seeing the building get new life.

“It’s a beautiful building. It was a nice library. I would love to see something go in there. It would be nice for people in the area to use it,” Britton said.

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