A project that staff and the Library Board have been discussing for years — replacing the circa-1998 staircase in the main entry of the library with a wood banister befitting the Carnegie library’s Prairie School Craftsman roots — will soon be underway, according to Chatfield Public Library director Monica Erickson.
Erickson is hopeful that the changes to the entrance, using long-saved funds given to the library by private donors, will promise patrons and visitors enjoyment of the architectural gem that awaits them beyond the front door. Bids were opened Nov. 21 for the entrance and other areas of the library, such as the flooring and bathrooms, but the construction timeline is still to be determined.
“I like to think that when this project is done, a person’s first step into our library will tell them, at a glance, that they have entered a very special building,” she said. “And that with such an impression, they will only be encouraged once they reach the top of the stairs and explore other parts of the library – including the bathrooms – and experience the personalized service that staff provides. Our library’s patrons deserve such a building, and I am so excited to see how much they will like it.”
Library grows over time
Chatfield’s first public library was founded originally as a ladies’ restroom stocked with books to amuse farmers’ wives while their husbands were in town doing business. In 1915, the library was constructed using funds donated by Andrew Carnegie. Typical of library design of this time, it was a two-story structure with the first floor elevated from the grade.
By the 1990s, the library was outgrowing its original size, and there was a push to make public buildings accessible as a result of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In 1998, an addition was added to the building to address capacity issues and the need for additional meeting room capacity, noted Christian Hendrie, the architect chosen for the current project. The 1998 project also provided accessibility to all levels of the building with the installation of an elevator, spurring the construction of the solid-paneled stairway wall that is now to be replaced.
The city worked with Charlie Nelson of the Minnesota State Historic Preservation office on an addition that was designed to “sensitively add onto the existing building. Because the cost of the exterior finish materials that would be compatible with the existing building were fairly expensive, they had a limited budget for the finish materials inside the building,” said Hendie, of the firm IIW.
New project a better match
“The goal of this project is to upgrade the interior finishes in the 1998 addition entry foyer to finishes that are more in character with the 1915 library that they would have liked to do in 1998 but were not done because of budget limitations,” he explained.
Although the existing main entry has proven functional, Erickson said it isn’t as beautiful as the 105-year-old Carnegie building deserves since the building is a classic example of Prairie School design, a style that is significant to the history of American architecture. Midwestern architects, such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, helped form Prairie School style – which includes horizontal lines, flat or hipped roofs with broad eaves, and windows arranged in horizontal bands, all characteristics easily recognizable in the library’s architecture.
“Once the novelty of the new addition wore off, I started to notice that our new entryway was really kind of sterile. It lacked the Craftsman style elements that add so much character to the historic part of the building,” Erickson said. “The first thing people come face to face with when they walk in is this almost five-foot high drywall divider wall that goes all the way up the stairs. The library is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the requirements of preserving that honor are always taken into consideration when changes are considered; our library’s original architecture has always been of the utmost importance to library board members and staff.”
Discussion begins in 2018
“The drywall divider certainly doesn’t say, ‘Welcome to our historic Prairie School-style Carnegie Library!’ And so, at about that same time, I remember chatting with Claude Moore in the library entry one day, and he said something to the effect of, ‘You know, you could put a wood banister in here.’ With that simple comment, from someone whose craftsmanship I highly respect, the wheels were set in motion, and Christian Hendrie and I began talking about it in March of 2018,” she said.
Hendrie was chosen as the architect for the library’s throwback update because Erickson and Library Board members admired his work across the street at the Chatfield Center for the Arts.
“He can’t hide his passion for historical buildings, and his enthusiasm for preserving their integrity told us he was definitely the one we needed,” Erickson said.
In addition to doing the design work for the State of Minnesota bonding bill request for the restoration of the Chatfield Center for the Arts auditorium, he has 20 years of experience in historic preservation and adaptive reuse, and he has worked on a wide variety of preservation projects in the Upper Midwest that include historic buildings, preservation plans, historic structures reports, Historic American Building Survey drawings, Section 106 reviews, National Register nominations and state and federal historic preservation tax credit projects.
To match the character of the existing 1915 library, the finishes, primarily the existing vinyl base and the staircase, will be upgraded to materials that are more in character with the existing architecture of the 1915 library, Hendrie said. The base moldings will be changed to a profiled oak base, and the existing staircase will be removed and a new oak staircase will be created with oak treads and risers, spindles and newel posts.
“By introducing more wood materials into the foyer, we feel it will create a warmer, more inviting space,” he said.
Erickson concurred: “The entryway makeover will provide a very different first impression to all who enter. A special entryway carpet, designed to trap dirt and moisture, will remove the need to have loose, overlapping mats right inside the door, and warmer paint colors and improved lighting will provide a more welcoming environment right at the front door. The warmth and beauty of the wood will announce right from the start that this is part of an historic building, one whose dignity and historical integrity is appreciated and preserved. While we are not trying to fool anyone into believing the modern entryway is the original, we feel the addition of some Craftsman-style elements, such as stained wood and natural, earthy colors will tie the new to the old in a complementary way.”
More library improvements
The director shared that there are plans for improvements beyond the foyer, which includes replacing carpet throughout the building that has been there for more than 21 years.
“If conditions prove favorable, we will restore the original hardwood floor in the original part of the library,” she added. “We will replace lighting in the original part of the library with lighting that is close to what we suspect was here originally in locations that are indicated by evidence seen in the original pressed-tin ceiling. The deteriorating sinks and untrustworthy toilets in the bathrooms will be replaced. Tile will replace the stained floor of the bathroom, and paint will be refreshed. Also, fresh paint colors will breathe new life into all the various areas of the main floor of the library proper.”
An exact construction timeline has yet to be established, according to Erickson. The historic entrance, which has not been used since the addition was completed, is an emergency exit, but there may be periods when people will need to enter through the historic, original entrance.
“We are hoping that those who need to use the elevator will be able to come in our current entrance far enough to get over to the elevator which will take them up to the first floor or down to the basement. We hope the community will show patience with the minor inconveniences this project may cause,” she said. “I personally hope that it will only increase our community’s pride in its local public library. I can’t tell you how many times local residents bring out of town guests to see our library. The pride that they have in it is evident. I also hope that the community will find the library even more inviting and that these improvements will show that we value their comfort, appreciation of our library’s history and love for all things traditional to libraries creatively blended with all things modern that a library can offer.”
“I think one of the most enjoyable components of this project for the library patrons will be the restoration of the original wood floor in the 1915 library,” Hendrie said. “I’m thinking the original wood floor has probably been hidden away for 70-plus years. I’m excited to see how the patrons will react with the 1915 library floor the way it was originally intended.”
Donations fund work
Erickson emphasized that it is only through donations to the library that the entryway project has been made possible for the project that has been estimated to cost $200,000, with Benike Construction serving as construction manager at risk.
“Donations to the library have been saved and invested for at least two decades to make this project possible. It is through the generosity of so many generous people that we are finally at a point that we can make these improvements happen. We can’t begin to express how grateful we are to all these people. Hopefully, they will all find pleasure in seeing that their kind gifts have made a very big difference once this project is done,” she said.
She added that donations are still graciously accepted to carry out further library restoration and maintenance.
“We are hoping to be able to afford some very nice upgrades to our bathrooms. Some of these, such as very beautiful yet quite simple tile extended up the walls, are bid alternates, so that if we find ourselves able to afford them, we can add them after bids have been received,” Erickson said. “Any contributions would help support the inclusion of such upgrades here and now in this project. There are many things we wish to do to improve our library. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to do them all. For instance, we would like to replace the carpet in the basement meeting room and repaint the walls, but the funds to do so are not available at present. Reupholstery of furniture upstairs will also be needed. If anyone should wish to contribute toward such improvements, we would certainly welcome this kind of support.”
Hendrie cited that Chatfield’s library is a unique, irreplaceable gift to the community from its original benefactor, Andrew Carnegie.
“I think that it’s important to remind ourselves how unique this library is and how special this piece of architecture is to the community. There were only 2,509 Carnegie libraries built, and only a fraction of those are still standing today,” he said. “There is only a small amount of Carnegie libraries that are still operating in their original capacity as a library, especially one as small as Chatfield’s. My favorite part has been working with the library staff as we moved through the design process. It’s always nice to see such dedication to the care and preservation of an historic building like this.”
“We are proud of our Carnegie library heritage and grateful that we’ve been given the means to keep it alive,” Erickson said. “According to a 2018 article posted by the Minnesota Association of Library Friends, of the original 66 Carnegie-funded libraries throughout Minnesota, 50 still stand, but only 23 continue to function as libraries.”