Southold Free Library plans $1.7 million renovation project

Southold Free Library plans to switch up its interior with a proposed $1.7 million renovation project.

The idea is to rearrange things and update its look while also restoring some of the original architecture, such as woodwork and fireplaces that have been there since the structure was built in 1891, according to director Caroline MacArthur.

While the existing space has been functional, the goal is to enhance patrons’ library experience, Ms. MacArthur and library trustees said.

“Our hope is really that people will linger in this new building and will want to come and it will be more of a destination,” library board vice president Bridget Rymer said.

The library was incorporated in 1797, but did not find its current home until 1928. The building was originally the site of Southold Savings Bank. The most recent changes were made in 1991, with an addition to the building’s north side. The library had proposed an expansion in 2010, but the community voted against the $6.7 million bond. The new project will not alter the building’s footprint.

Library leadership has been working with architect Vincent Benic, a part-time Southold resident who is known for projects involving restoration of historic buildings. One of the project goals is to restore and call attention to elements of the library’s original architecture, Ms. Rymer said.

“There’s this incredible historic detail in the building and a lot of it is just kind of not noticed because there’s not emphasis placed on it,” she said. In addition to highlighting authentic woodwork and fireplaces, carpeting will be removed in some spots to reveal the original wood flooring.

“There’s a lot of things that were great 30 years ago,” said library trustees president David Robinson, referring to the 1991 renovation. “But now, at the same time things will be modernized, the architectural beauty will come back to it.”

Significant proposed changes include establishing a local history room front and center for library visitors. The collection is unique to the library and includes such one-of-kind items as the original book collection of the Rev. Epher Whitaker, who penned a book on Southold’s first century in 1881, Ms. MacArthur said.

The renovation plans also show that the adult reading area will be brought to the front of the building, where the children’s space currently resides. Children’s services will be moved to the addition on the north side of the building. Meanwhile, the second floor will house a new dedicated teen space.

A pressing issue in the design was to address the community meeting space located in the library’s basement, which is often overbooked, Mr. Robinson said. A way to resolve that will be to allow more group meetings to be held in the Whitaker room on the second floor, hoping that will free up space for other programs on the lower level.

Although the library board is proposing a budget increase, on which the community will vote May 16, nearly $1 million of the funds required for the project have already been covered, Mr. Robinson said.

“We are going to ask for an increase in our budget — we’re not even asking for a bond — because it’s such a small number and we have approximately 60 percent of the money already on hand through generous donations of our patrons,” he said.

The library will apply for a $750,000 construction loan, which will be paid off by increasing its budget expense by about 20 percent for five years. This would amount to an annual increase of about $20 for the average taxpayer, Mr. Robinson said. The board is actively seeking grants that could potentially bring that figure down, Ms. Rymer noted.

“It’s tremendous,” he said of the donations. “It’s what makes the project doable.”

Board members said it required due diligence and hard work to put the plan together with Ms. MacArthur and Mr. Benic. The plan is the most bang for the buck and will benefit the community “well-beyond the five years it took to pay off,” Mr. Robinson said.

The community can learn more about the project at three upcoming presentations ahead on the budget vote — the first takes place April 1 at the library — and can stay updated via the library’s new website.

Ms. MacArthur, who has been library director for nearly 19 years, said the library is more than just a place to get a book and that the renovation will give it the flexibility to accommodate the changing landscape of library services.

“I’m so excited,” she said. “I can’t wait. It’s really going to be the best thing for this library in so many ways. I just love that because I love this community. I live here, too.”

Photo caption: Southold Free Library’s current children’s space is located in the front of the original building, which was built as a bank in 1891. Renovation plans show a revamped children’s area relocated to the library’s 1991 addition. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

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