A wise person once observed that, in any small town in America, the prettiest building is most likely to be the Episcopal church. Rosendale obtained its own iteration of that principle in 1875, when taverns and brothels outnumbered churches in the cement-industry boomtown. Funded by the Century Cement Company, the All Saints Chapel at 264 Main Street is a graceful structure in the Early English Gothic Revival style with a fishscale-patterned slate roof and exterior masonry consisting of chunks of local limestone and rubble mortared together with Rosendale cement.
The chapel’s use as a house of worship was abandoned after severe flooding in 1955. Century Cement heir Andrew J. Snyder bought the building, financed repairs and donated it to the Rosendale Library Association in 1959. The 1939 brainchild of the Comus Club and Library Committee of the Rosendale Woman’s Club, the library had been hosted in the Office of the Town Clerk prior to obtaining its own permanent home.
The Rosendale Library’s troubles were not over yet, however. A fire in 1975 ravaged the building’s interior and destroyed most of its collection, requiring reconstruction. A small new addition was built in 1976, and the roof replaced in 2008. The library building has been on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places since 1986.
Under the directorship of librarian Wendy Alexander from 1977 until her retirement in 2019, the Rosendale Library gradually modernized its facilities and services as much as its modest size and budget could accommodate, adding a handicapped access ramp in 1979, its first computers in 1992 and free public Internet access in 1997. The new library director, Katie Scott-Childress, took the helm in 2019 with an impressive résumé – an MLIS degree from the University of Maryland, five years at the Olive Free Library and the last two years as director of the Saugerties Library – and a headful of plans to “use the facility in new ways and regenerate interest in the library through programming.” Within less than six months of her arrival, the pandemic struck.
Spending a year at her new gig with onsite services limited to curbside pickup and dropoff of books was hardly what Scott-Childress had in mind. But she decided to make the best of the quarantine by addressing the Rosendale Library’s most pressing problem: a physical facility that desperately needed renovation. The chapel’s interior, with its arched windows and high scissor-beamed ceiling, was designed to inspire lofty thoughts; but there’s no getting around the fact that the 20-by-40-foot main room isn’t particularly big. And the 1976 addition hasn’t held up well: “The insulation is crumbling in the attic,” she reports. “The ceiling tiles are falling apart.”
Under Scott-Childress’ supervision, reconstruction work got underway, with an eye toward making maximal use of existing space until funding can be secured to bump out some walls. The biggest problem with the main room was the configuration of the bookshelves: two long parallel rows of shelves down the long axis of the space, so tall that they blocked the light from the windows. “It was like going into a dark corridor,” she says.
All that has changed now, and the room seems much airier and more inviting since it reopened for public use on May 1. Rosendale carpenter Eric Friedman dismantled the oversized bookcases and repurposed the same wood to build smaller ones. Two long strips of new carpeting, with the same colors as the original but in a different pattern, divulge where the two long bookcases used to stand. Now the books are arrayed on four shorter cases, set on an angle to the side walls at the suggestion of Sage Jobsis, a regular patron of the library who has a mobility handicap. Scott-Childress invited Jobsis to roll her wheelchair around the space to help the designers envision the optimal way to configure the rows, allowing ample room to turn. The entryway to the library is still challengingly narrow for wheelchairs and walkers, and widening that is one of the items on the director’s checklist for future expansion.
Other changes in the arrangement of the furniture make the library more user-friendly, especially for patrons who come to use the four public computers. “They were against the back wall; now they’re up front so the librarians can help people,” Scott-Childress says. Staff can print copies for patrons, scan and fax documents. Under each of the arched windows along the perimeter walls, Friedman added a small wooden desk with an electrical outlet for laptop-users. In addition, many of the smaller bookcases and tables now roll around on casters, so that they can be rearranged easily to make room for story hour, meetings, lectures and presentations.
More work yet needs to be done on expanding the library’s physical space, as far as lot-line setbacks will permit. “It’s a pretty small piece of land,” Scott-Childress notes. She is working on an application for a grant from the State Aid for Library Construction fund that will enable the library to refurbish, rearrange and slightly enlarge the newer section of the building. “We want to create a community room, offices, a second bathroom and a dedicated children’s room,” she says. “We do children’s story hour before the library opens. It would be nice to have a separate space, so the children don’t have to be shushed.”
Relocating the stairwell and moving the year-round Booktique sale section from the basement up to ground level are additional goals, along with making the entry hall wide enough for a wheelchair and a person walking in the opposite direction to pass. “We also need to replace the HVAC system, get off oil-burning and install an energy-efficient system.” An outdoor space for programming is on the wish list as well, so that the library doesn’t have to rely on the availability of the Rosendale Recreation Center or the stage at Willow Kiln Park.
During the yearlong hiatus, Scott-Childress “completely redid the website” so that patrons can sign up for library cards remotely and obtain online access to many of the library’s expanded services, including e-books and audiobooks via Hoopla, magazines, movies via Kanopy, language instruction via Mango, free tutoring and so on. More electronic services appear to be the wave of the future for libraries, and presentations that were available only on Zoom during the pandemic may continue to be offered that way to those who can’t attend in person.
But the library has reopened, currently with limits on the number of people who can browse the shelves at once and on the amount of time they can tie up a computer. “Things are changing rapidly. We may be fully reopened in two weeks; I don’t know.” Offsite programming is expanding, such as a monthly Slow Jam for Stringed Instruments at the Rec Center Pavilion. For the first time in its history, the library now has a second certified librarian on staff full-time: Allison Mikulewich, who has a background in children’s programming, has been brought on board to be program director.
The new director and the library board have been convening remotely to develop a “three-to-five-year plan that reflects what the community wants.” Surveys have been mailed to every address in the library district; residents are being sounded out about their priorities in a series of Community Conversations that are just wrapping up. “I want to be able to effect positive change in any community that I work in,” says Scott-Childress. “I’m working with a board in Rosendale who want the library to play a larger tole in the community and be responsive to people’s needs.”
The Rosendale Library is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday; it’s closed on Sunday. A Pop-Up Book Sale will celebrate the library’s reopening from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 5. For more information on upcoming programming or access to online services, visit https://rosendalelibrary.org.