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Nostalgia marks mazy library's final day

Opened in 1915 and enlarged often, the musty old main library will be razed this summer to make way for a $20.2-million facility.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2002


Opened in 1915 and enlarged often, the musty old main library will be razed this summer to make way for a $20.2-million facility.

CLEARWATER -- Helped by a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation, the city built a small brick library on Osceola Avenue in 1915.

At 5 p.m. today, the Clearwater Main Library will close, ending an era for the library's patrons.

The library -- several times enlarged with a mishmash of additions and renovations -- will be demolished by wrecking balls and bulldozers this summer so that a new, 90,000-square-foot, $20.2-million facility can be built.

With the impending demolition, loyal patrons have been making their final visits to the library. Among them was Karen Jackson, who has been using the main library for the past 48 years.

A vociferous reader who tears through several books a week and loves crime thrillers, Jackson applied for her first library card here when she was 6 years old.

"I was going to go to the East Library to drop these off," she said, after returning a few books Friday. "But I wanted to come say goodbye.

"I'm sad to see it go. I'm sure the new library will be lovely, but there's always something about the familiar," said Jackson, who remembers winding her way around this library's narrow concrete staircases, searching for books as a girl. "Finding books back then was an adventure."

Staff members said they are nostalgic and even saddened by the closure, although they look forward to having a new, larger library ready to open in late 2003.

"When the doors close, it will probably soak in for some of us then," said Marsha McGrath, who has worked here for 21 years. "We'll feel a little sad."

Longtime staff members remember how one former library director, Sarah Byers, slept on a bench inside the library once during a hurricane and taped the windows herself to make sure none of them blew in. They remember watching shuttle launches from this building's roof and sunsets through the glass windows overlooking Clearwater Harbor.

But they also recall the library's persistent leaks and odd, musty smells. They point out its worn carpets, labyrinthine hallways and some areas of the building that are too weak to hold books.

"You know, we're not going to miss that," McGrath said.

Marlene Havens, who has worked here for 35 years, had a similar mix of feelings as she worked amid the "WE'RE MOVING!" signs taped all over the library this week.

"We've made do for a long time, and I understand that we had one architect once tell us it was the ugliest building he had ever been in," Havens said. "Still, it has been one of the best libraries around."

After the library closes, the city will spend several weeks packing the collection of some 200,000 items here, Library Director John Szabo said. Already, there are organized, color-coded boxes of books stacked neck-high in a conference room, as packing has begun.

About half the library's collection will be put into storage and the other half moved to the five-story Colliers Arnold Building across the street at 121 N Osceola Ave.

The Colliers Arnold Building will open as the city's interim library on April 29 and will function until the new library is finished. City maintenance crews are in the process of removing walls and renovating the office building to house the maximum number of books.

Although the main library will be closed for a month during the move, staff members will still collect books from the downtown book drop and will answer the phone to renew books and answer reference questions as usual, Szabo said.

After the library's move, the Greater Clearwater Library Foundation plans to host a "Giant Garage Sale" on April 23 and 24 in the old, empty library to raise money for the construction of the new building. The foundation may also host a last look for the public the night before demolition begins.

However, not all of the old library will be junked. During the demolition, Szabo said, the city intends to save some of the bricks and the historic cornerstone from the original 1915 library and find a way to incorporate them in the new library.

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