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The Hamline-Midway library needs to change — but should it be demolished?

Over the last year, competing groups of library advocates have waged a low-key fight over the future of the small brick building.

Everyone agrees that the quaint Hamline-Midway library building on Minnehaha Avenue, just off a busy Snelling street corner, could use reinvestment.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Passing through the doors of the Hamline-Midway library remains a special moment for St. Paul resident Bonnie Youngquist, who remembers decades of visiting with her family.

“When you go in the entrance, look at the facade above the door: It has a neat significant feature,” says Youngquist, who has gathered more than 1,500 signatures on a petition to save the library building. “The Hamline-Midway library was my favorite. My kids practically grew up in that library, [watching] the Bill the Juggler shows. We know it well.”

Over the last year, competing groups of library advocates have waged a low-key fight over the future of the small brick building. Advocates like Youngquist have been writing letters to the editor and launching petitions, while other library supporters are pushing a plan to replace the building with a larger, newer one. Earlier this month, the city’s Capital Investment and Budget committee heard testimony about the importance of investing in the library. But at this point, with no firm plans officially on the books, it’s not clear whether to tear down the 90-year-old building.

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A point of agreement: It’s outdated

Everyone agrees that the quaint building on Minnehaha Avenue, just off a busy Snelling street corner, could use reinvestment. Compared to the city’s newer, larger libraries, like the Rondo branch 2 miles to the east, the facility seems starkly obsolete. The 1930 building can best be described as funky, and has been doing yeoman’s work for 90 years.

Thus the need for change, as community members recently testified before the city’s mayor-appointed committee.

“I have visited the Hamline-Midway branch, volunteered there, raised kids there, and seen how much facilities are used in variety of ways,” said Deepa Rathnam Nirmal, who spoke during the public testimony at the city’s CIB committee. Nirmal is one of the members of the Hamline Midway Library Association, who have been organizing for years to improve their local branch.

“It’s very well loved [but] shows a lot of wear, [and] it’s simply not keeping up with the needs of the expanding community,” testified Nirmal. “I think we would do well to have a completely new building just because of the constraints. I’m sure we can incorporate some of the charm of the existing building.”

The CIB Committee is weighing whether to grant just over $8 million for this library in a competitive process that pits projects against others around the city. But because the request does not specify what exactly will happen to the building, the Hamline-Midway situation is as vague as anything gets in local politics.

A quirky history

Uncertainty is nothing new for patrons of the Hamline-Midway library. Like many of the city’s smaller branches, it’s been teetering on the edge of a library budget cliff for years. In 2009, facing a $2.1 million dollar shortfall, then-Mayor Chris Coleman proposed shutting down the library for good. In response, neighbors pushed back and organized, keeping the branch open.

In fact, the Hamline-Midway branch has a special connection to community activism dating to its inception. The only reason it exists today is that neighbors organized during the 1918 flu pandemic to acquire land for the building. One hundred years and one pandemic later, history is repeating itself.

“The behind-the-scenes story is pretty interesting,” said Youngquist. “During the Spanish flu, neighbors were fundraising and donating money to buy land for a library building. And much later, during the Depression, the library was built after a prolonged lawsuit to access funds by the William Hale estate.”

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As Youngquist describes, the library’s odd provenance traces its roots to a little-known East Coast transplant named Henry Hale (the grandson of Nathan Hale). Hale was a renowned judge and president of the library board, and left a provision in his will to build one in St. Paul. Though he died in 1890, the bequest stalled for decades as his wife and then descendants kept control over the estate. The stalemate only ended when a group of Hamline-Midway library advocates filed a lawsuit to force the construction of the library branch.

An image from the 1930 dedication of the Hamline-Midway Library.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
An image from the 1930 dedication of the Hamline-Midway library.
Completed in 1930, at the start of the Depression, the building lacks some of the ornamentation of the city’s other historic libraries. Yet the building is stately, with windows that resemble an English estate. Above the entrance, an inscription is sculpted into the stone below a frieze of an open book bearing a torch.

As you enter the doorway, the library seems like a dead ringer for the city’s handful of older Carnegie libraries, about the same size and design, minus a few decorative flourishes like ceiling molding. I imagine that if you told most patrons that this was identical to the St. Anthony or Riverview branches, they would believe you.

Those libraries have been variously expanded, restored or sold, but each remains a  historic landmark in their respective neighborhoods. For example, when the SPPL built a new East Side library to replace the long-suffering Carnegie library on Greenbrier Street, it found a new site a few blocks away and leased out the old building. Today, the old building serves as the home of the East Side Freedom Library, a nonprofit that has reused the building in a wonderful way.

Some library advocates envision a similar fate for Henry Hale’s building, pitching different options that would relocate a new facility somewhere nearby.

Drawbacks

From the librarian’s perspective, there’s a long list of flaws with the existing structure, everything from HVAC issues to ADA accessibility to space requirements. By my reading of the existing documents, the limits of the building seem like more trouble than they are worth, for the library’s long-term plans.

St. Paul Public Library
That’s why the Hamline-Midway Library Association, a grassroots group that had pushed to save the facility 12 years ago, released a statement earlier this year supporting demolition.

Concluding their position statement, they write:

We would also work to make sure we have opportunities as a community to process all the difficult emotions that would come up around losing our old library and building a new one, and to find ways to respect and integrate the library’s history into a new design.

At this point the CIB proposal is not explicit on the future of the building. If the Hamline-Midway branch receives its funding, the appointed dollars would be open-ended. Library administrators could either use the dollars to restore or replace the structure, and have not stated their plans explicitly.

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Meanwhile, just next door to the Henry Hale building, Lloyds Pharmacy, a two-story wooden building, is currently being rebuilt a year after being torched by an arsonist. At the time, community members mourned the loss of the structure and the institution. For many in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, including me, it’s heartening to see the building being rebuilt in place of the burned-out ruin.

Only time will tell if the Hamline-Midway library branch, with its odd history, can survive the complexity of the city’s funding cycles and institutional negotiation. City leaders will soon be forced to decide whether the building merits the extra attention and time that it would take to preserve the structure to serve another generation.

Correction: This version corrects that the East Side Freedom Library is leased to the nonprofit that runs it.