The electrical fire that destroyed the interior of the Phoenicia Library was still smoldering on that March morning in 2011, when Judith Singer, then president of the library board, got on the phone with Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, technical advisor at the Mid-Hudson Library System. “Before the fire was out,” said Aldrich, “they were already thinking of how to continue the library service and make a comeback.”
Singer recalls being deeply shaken but focused on getting a temporary library up and running within one week. “I wanted to show that wasn’t nothing gonna get us down. The library has incredible patron loyalty, and we didn’t want to risk that. We managed to get it done.”
Nearly four years after the disaster, the renovated and expanded library building will reopen on Friday, January 2. “They took a really sad situation and made the absolute best of out it,” said Aldrich, who shepherded the board through the recovery, helping the library obtain $384,187 in grant money for the $800,000 reconstruction. “I’m impressed with what they accomplished and so excited that a community cares that much about their library. It says a lot about a community what their library is. Phoenicia must be a great place to live.”
While the building’s exterior still reflects the 19th-century architectural style of the town, the sustainable technology used inside has put the library in line for certification from the Passive House Institute US. “We’re the first American library built to passive house standards,” said library director Elizabeth Potter.
These standards call for thick insulation and an airtight building envelope, combined with computer-calibrated ventilation through a heat-exchange system. Although passive house construction meant a higher price tag, the building will require no heating fuel, the most costly element of the yearly operational budget of $125,000. The budget is supported by town taxes, but the renovation was entirely paid for by grants, insurance, and private donations.
Another big change in the new library is the allocation of space. When residents gave feedback in a 2007 survey, said Potter, “The biggest complaint was that the old building was cramped and claustrophobic. The library has always been a hangout place, and now we have a good seating area to sit and read and talk. People need a place to just sit and be.”
Patrons entering the building will now encounter a custom-built, U-shaped circulation desk, designed to staff specifications and donated by Ben Mack of Mack Custom Woodworking in Shokan. At the center of the room are a long table and chairs, with outlets beneath for plugging in laptops. By the front window are two comfy chairs with reading lamps. The walls are lined with bookshelves filled with fiction, the most popular category for readers.
Two sections of shelving will carry a rotating selection of art books. At the library’s temporary quarters on Ava Maria Road, explained Potter, art books were stored on shelves beneath a tiny seating area near the entrance. People sitting on the benches would often pick up the art books, page through them, and sometimes check them out.
A huge landscape by Phoenicia artist Michelle Spark, wife of board member Bernard Handzel, hangs on the wall over the public computers, and another of her paintings graces the upstairs activities room. “When I was doing research,” said Potter, “I found a newspaper article about the library from 1963. The upstairs had an art gallery for local artists. For now, we have Michelle’s paintings up, but in the next six months, we’ll figure out how to invite people in to display their work. There are so many artists in this community.”
YA titles, activities and Angler’s Parlor
At the back of the ground floor is the library’s first dedicated children’s room. (The young adult titles, formerly squeezed onto the children’s shelves, now have their own section upstairs.) A green carpet covers the floor. Board member Bethia Waterman created a campfire out of birch logs and flames made of felt. “We’re going to put up a pup tent in here, with wooden food to grill over the fire,” said Potter. A door leads to the back yard, now fenced in so parents can bring their kids outside to play. In warm weather, the Saturday children’s art program can be held outside at the picnic table.
Up the staircase — or via elevator, for patrons with disabilities — is the activities room, which like the children’s room, occupies the back section of the building that was formed by expanding the structure 24 feet into the yard. The old building had no windows on the back wall, but now the activities room provides a view of the Stony Clove Creek and the mountains beyond. A ceiling-mounted digital projector in the center of the room will allow the showing of films and Power Point presentations at workshops and lectures. Outside groups may also apply to hold meetings in the space.
The adjoining room has shelves for non-fiction, art, and young adult books. At the front of the building is the Anglers Parlor, housing the Jerry Bartlett Angling Collection. After the fire, book donations quickly replaced many of the fishing books that were destroyed, and new rods are available for checkout during fishing season. A brand-new display of tied flies includes lures created by master anglers and photographed for the Bartlett collection website created after the fire. (See https://www.catskillanglingcollection.org.) Plans call for holding events in the Parlor as in the past, including fly-tying workshops, classes on macroinvertebrates, and Old-Timer Days, focused on specific fishing heroes of the past.
Library board member Holly George-Warren hopes more people will attend the monthly board meetings and provide input on using the new space. “We want to know people’s needs,” she said, “and get feedback on programming.” She praised Potter for developing the library’s events during the stay at the temporary space. “Attendance at the programs is at an all-time high, and all ages are coming,” added George-Warren. Board meetings are held on the third Thursday of each month, posted on the library website and Facebook page.
Singer, now retired from the board, commented, “In the early promotional material for fundraising, we put a picture of a phoenix rising above the town with a book in its mouth. We promised people a better library would rise from the ashes. I’m so thrilled that we held to that promise.”