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  • Writer's pictureTia Swanson


South Orange will get one new library by renovating two old ones

Like many artists, architect Andrew Berman thinks metaphorically. Tasked with redesigning the village’s library, a building in which he spent a considerable part of his adolescence, Berman decided the library should be symbolic of the community itself.

“It’s imperative we work with a true understanding of the community in order to design something that fits,’’ he told a crowd of about 100 who gathered in the library building in late April to get a look at the design his company had produced.

What fits, it turns out, is the buildings that are already here. There is the original, handsome, stolid, stone library at the corner of Taylor Place and Scotland, with its wood-paneled reading rooms and large windows. It arrived in 1896, as South Orange was transforming from sleepy village to town. Berman says its design is indicative of the community’s aspirations.

The library built next door in 1968 has always seemed something of an ugly stepsister by comparison. Red brick outside and cement block walls within, it went up when public purses were limited and the mood was hardly expansive. Berman called it “stiff, formal.” South Orange was an established suburb, worried less about reputation and more about the tax rate. Still, swept clean, this library is remarkably bright and expansive. Compared to the first library it is immense. Its large windows are on an institutional, not a residential, scale.

Now those two buildings and their histories will be joined through the addition of a markedly modern glass space that will become the library’s entrance and connection point, a thin but double-storied, light-filled great hall. This is where the symbolism enters.

The new lobby is intended as a meeting point. Food and drink will be allowed in hopes folks will gather there with friends. Unlike other sections of the library, talking will be encouraged!

The two library buildings will be connected by the addition of a soaring glass entryway that is intended to reflect the community's openness.

Berman says its transparency is its most salient feature. “It’s very important to look in and see people – people like ourselves, and people not quite like ourselves, but still part of our community,” he says. The single, central entrance plays a part too. “Everyone comes through the same door.”

Architect Andrew Berman is redesigning the South Orange Library where he spent a considerable part of his adolescence.

What Berman wants to tell the world about South Orange is that this is a place where everybody matters and belongs. The interior spaces were designed only after months of discussion with the library staff and stakeholders. Library Director Jill Faherty remains the liaison between her staff, the community and Berman.

  • The children’s library will be expanded and will include a garden.

  • There will be new teen spaces where middle and high schoolers can hang out. Berman calls them places to be “on your own in the world.”

  • There will be a maker’s space, study pods, large and small community spaces.

  • The wood-paneled reading rooms will be refurbished, so that those who seek a quiet place to think and read can do so.

  • There will be 40 periodicals and various other print materials that will feel decidedly old school. Berman says he wants the library to feel “like a home away from home’’ for older residents and “critical for all ages … all needs.”

The project will increase the library’s meeting spaces by 400 percent and its overall square footage by nearly 50 percent. The children’s room will double in size and teen use of the library is expected to increase by a whopping 800 percent.

The ground floor of the Connett Building will become a teen space, intended to provide middle and high schoolers with a place to study, hang out and, in architect Andrew Berman's words, "be on your own in the world."

South Orange is largely and rightly seen as a wealthy town. Still, according to data from the U.S. Census, nearly five percent of South Orange households do not have a computer and nearly seven percent lack broadband. Nearby communities have an even greater need.

Patrons have had to wait for computers and charging capabilities due to limited seats. One of the major expenses of the new library will be updating all systems, including electric, heating, and technology. The modifications will bring 37 percent more computers. Computer instruction is expected to increase by nearly half. The building will also become fully accessible to those with disabilities.

The decision to renovate rather than rebuild was not just a cost issue. It was also environmentally sound. The project will qualify for LEED Silver Certification. Most of the new building will be made of glass and wood. Berman and his company are adamant about reusing as much as possible from inside the building, including the stacks.

Library Director Jill Faherty was instrumental in communicating staff and community needs to the architects.

But the new library will feel completely different, an open, modern, and welcoming hub. The new meeting spaces are intended to make the library a place where community groups of all kinds can gather.

The second floor of the Connett Building, the original library, will house a large community meeting room intended to provide flexible seating for discussion groups, lectures and even receptions.

The extensive renovation of the library, which has been part of the master plan for 10 years, has been made possible by a slew of public funding. The library board got the largest grant award in the state’s second round of funding for libraries. (Maplewood Library received the largest grant in the first round of funding.) The $6.5 million from the state was matched by the South Orange Village. An additional $3 million loan was approved, and the library’s foundation raised another $1 million. It is still seeking an additional $500,000 to balance the renovation budget.

Longtime resident Marietta Zacker, a woman who has spent her adult life in the book world, is leading the fundraising effort. She has fond memories of visiting her local library as a child. She believes a good library is essential to building kids and community. She also sees the library as an essential piece of the town. People need and use this library, she said. It is one of the few places where all are welcome and where all kinds of things are available for free: books, movies, magazines, information and tax help. “I’m so lucky to be a part of making a library we can be truly proud of.”

The two buildings have already been cleared. Construction is due to begin this fall and will take about two years to complete.

When her children were small, Tia Swanson spent part of her day at the library several times a week. She remembers those days with joy and gratitude.

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