NEARING THE END OF A 90-YEAR RUN
By Ray Linker
Observer Staff Writer
It has been a long time coming, but La Grande city officials can almost taste the fruits of their efforts to get a new library built.
They have recently watched big machines turn up the soil at Fourth Street and Adams Avenue as the old Safeway store building Â— vacant since December 2001 Â— was torn down .
The site, long ago the location of the La Grande Hotel, was selected after extensive studies and surveys, and community meetings before different committees and the city council over a number of years.
Official groundbreaking ceremonies will occur in the next few months Â— or at least by next spring Â— then builders, architects, engineers and others will begin their task of putting up the complex that will house the city library and ODS Health Plan offices.
The ground clearing included excavating an older foundation that had been buried on the corner. That hole must now be filled. Inspectors were in town this week to determine what type of fill would be needed.
City Manager Wes Hare said last week that no construction drawings have yet been developed for the library building, even though there are conceptual renderings of the layout showing a design encompassing 19,000 square feet.
"We're a long way from having construction drawings," he said. "We're still optimistic about getting the project under way, but it could be there will be no actual groundbreaking before next spring."
Hare said ODS Health Plans is still trying to get a tenant to occupy that company's portion of the complex, which will be 16,000 square feet.
While in some respects it was painful to get to this point, officials see the next step as a hard one, too, even though it won't take much physical effort on their part.
Waiting is hard to do
It's the actual waiting to get into the building, which could be two years away. Certainly they will follow each step of the construction, approval and acceptance of the building, moving in 50,000 books and equipment from the present library, getting in new computers, and finally opening the doors to the public.
Some of the public as well as the staff feel that getting out of the old library on Penn Avenue can't come too soon.
It was a gem when it was built in 1913 as one of 2,509 Carnegie libraries around the world; the Carnegie foundation gave $12,500 to the city for the site and building. However, in recent years, the building has brought problems.
Besides having the front steps inaccessible to people with disabilities Â—patrons have to use the Fifth Street ramp, then take a lift to the main floor Â— the building has long been considered inadequate and too small to serve the public of La Grande and Union County.
For example, there are 13 computers for public use crammed into the center of the main floor. Six are for Internet and "they are used from the time we open until we close every day," said librarian Jo Cowling.
Leaking walls have caused water damage to some books. After one heavy rain a couple of years ago, the library staff took the wet books from the exterior wall shelves and lined them up along the floor in front of other shelves to dry out.
The interior walls of the brick building have been described in city documents as being made of "wood frame with lath, chicken wire and plaster."
While the building, with 7,920 square feet of space on two levels, is old it is not on any historic roster and has no historical significance, a library committee concluded in 1999. Some others would disagree. Then there is the economics of any restoration or renovation that would be needed to make it workable for any other organization.
Once when the city was considering tearing down the building and putting up a new one on the present site plus the vacant lot across Penn Avenue, then-city councilor Doyle Slater commented, "Something old has history, but not necessarily historical value."
At that time, Slater favored tearing the library down and putting up a new one on the same site.
A 1997 report to the council by a library committee, one of many formed over the years to search out a new site, said the present building had "reached the end of its useful life." In 1997.
Even then, the building was in disrepair. Windows had been painted shut, roots were in the sewer lines, the bricks weren't sealed, causing seepage. Some said the facade, which is the main aspect about the building that is appealing, would likely be lost in any extensive renovation project.
Lower floor pillars have had to be added to support the weight of books on the upper level.
Many sites considered
Even as early as 1980, a library study recommended replacement of the structure. Between 1997 and 1999, another committee looked at between 20 and 30 sites for a new library building.
The small size has been a major problem in recent years. There is not enough room to serve the population. The 10,000 card holders, which includes residents from throughout the county, check out 120,000 items a year, Hare said. A library of 20,000 square feet is the size suggested by the Oregon Library Association as adequate to serve Union County.
The city hasn't determined the future use of the old building. Think Link was among the groups that expressed interest earlier.
"It's an old building, but it's not falling down," Hare said. "We haven't invested a lot of money in maintaining it, but the roof is good, it is structurally sound. We have invested in a new heating and air conditioning system and put in wiring for computers.
"But it was designed to serve a population of less than half of what we have now. Library usage has changed since it was originally designed. Now it can't accommodate too many people. It's a difficult place to study."
On July 25, 1913, contracts for erecting the building and putting in plumbing were awarded for $8,946. The books were put in on Dec. 31, 1913. The formal opening was March 16, 1914. Miss Mabel Doty, the first librarian, wrote that "a large number of citizens were present at the formal opening and the La Grande Public Library began serving its community."
The old building has served the public well for 89 years but now it's time to move on, said librarian Cowling, who has worked in the building for about 20 years. "
"We'll be glad to get out of this (old) building and into the new one," she said.