New day for Union Square library After years of neglect, building is restored to community life

October 25, 1997|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

At last, the old No. 2 Branch of the Pratt Library breathes again.

After more than 30 years of underuse and neglect, the former Union Square Pratt Library branch will be re-introduced to the public today, with a community redevelopment center as its tenant -- serving as an example of how neighborhoods can use what Pratt assistant director James C. Welbourne calls "retired libraries."

The Neighborhood Design Center Inc., a nonprofit organization that assists community organizations in revitalization projects, will lease the building, also to be used as a community meeting space and as headquarters for a Pratt Library online service.

Carol Gilbert, president of the 29-year-old organization, which had been leasing space, most recently in North Baltimore, said, "It's a beautiful place. We're pleased to bring it back to life."

Today's ribbon-cutting is part of a 150th anniversary celebration for Union Square. Mayor Kurt Schmoke and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will participate in a groundbreaking ceremony for a small park at the corner of Pratt and Gilmor streets.

The re-use comes as Pratt Library officials and community leaders grapple with the question of what do with shuttered libraries.

The Pratt recently closed branch libraries in the Morrell Park and Charles Village neighborhoods, and officials say other older branches could be closed as the library proceeds with plans to open megabranches that will each serve a number of neighborhoods with modernized facilities.

Pratt LINE is one example of a re-use option. The library will use part of the Union Square building as a reference center with access to the Internet and other resources for neighborhood groups planning improvement projects. Welbourne said the project helps the library remain active in the community without the responsibility of maintaining the building.

"This benefits the community," Welbourne said, "but it has given us the opportunity to offer a service we wouldn't have been able to do in an operating branch."

Since it was closed in 1964, the former Union Square library building has had a rough life. Though it has been used for office space by the Urban Services Agency and then for storage by the Pratt, the place had many of the features that come with being abandoned.

When the community finally decided to look for help, in 1995, it had been more than three decades since the building had seen signs of vitality.

"It had been a long time," said Cindi Ptak, preservation officer for the Union Square Historical District in Southwest Baltimore. "There had been a neighborhood services building there, but there was no improvement [in the property]."

On the outside, an abundance of spray paint decorated the walls, and plywood covered doors and windows. The inside was filled with abandoned furniture from Pratt facilities, adding up to an eyesore.

Ptak said that the association had no idea what to ask for when it approached NDC for help. "We thought about it as some sort of library satellite, but we knew that wasn't realistic because of the library's lack of resources," she said.

But at the time, design center staffers were "falling over ourselves" at their quarters in the 2600 block of Howard St., where it took up the second floor of a rowhouse, according to President Carol Gilbert.

The organization decided to move in, leasing the building from the library at $7,500 a year for five years, then $10,000 annually for the next five with an option to renew after that. The cost of restoration was approximately $700,000, most of which was covered by donations of funds and resources, according to Gilbert.

"We were running out of space, so we decided that we were a feasible re-use for the building," Gilbert said. "By doing this project, we were able to bring back a building that had been very important to the neighborhood."

Pub Date: 10/25/97

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