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

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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