These 5 Libraries Are Part of a Major Renaissance
Once points of civic pride, many establishments are facing hardships. Amazingly, these Main Line libraries are booming.
Radnor Memorial Library executive director Anny Laepple (left) with board of trustees president Helen Grommell-McGrane//All photos by Tessa Marie Images.
Founded in 1809, this is one of the area’s oldest libraries. Initially subscription based and accessible only to paying members, it opened to the public in 1940. Six years later, it was renamed to honor the men and women who served in World War II.
Several years ago, the Friends of the Radnor Library started talking about a makeover, quickly realizing that a complete facelift was needed. Thanks to a Keystone Grant, a bond from Radnor Township, and a capital campaign chaired by children’s book authors and former Wayne residents Jerry and Eileen Spinelli, is well underway.
Set to break ground in this fall, the $5 million project will have a new façade, seating areas and meeting rooms, an improved HVAC system, a technology upgrade, and other features. Executive director Anny Laepple is especially excited about doubling the seating to 190—that includes a new teen space to accommodate the crowd from Radnor Middle School.
Even so, the library will retain its sense of place, says Helen Grommell-McGrane, president of its board of trustees. “We refer to it as the front porch of the neighborhood,” she says, “and that will be evident in the new building’s new design.”
114 W. Wayne Ave., Wayne
Pictured: Media-Upper Providence Free Library board of trustees president Robin Beaver (left) and board vice president Marie Sciocchetti.
Imagine a library so old that a few of its floors are out of use because they can’t support the weight of shelved books. Such was the case with the Media-Upper Providence facility, which was also too small to handle the more than 10,000 people who walked through its doors every month.
When the board of trustees reviewed their options for expansion, they had to face a harsh reality: The library was composed of five buildings knit together by stucco; the basement had a dirt floor; and the structures were ailing. “We first investigated the possibility of renovations,” says board president Robin Beaver. “But it became clear that renovation was not good stewardship of the community’s funds. The best choice was to tear down the library and rebuild it from scratch.”
Funds came from a large bequest gifted by a local library lover, a $500,000 Keystone Grant, and a loan from Media Borough. Upper Providence was also helpful. “I’ve never seen anything like the cooperation we’ve had with both municipalities,” says board vice president Marie Sciocchetti. “It’s a neat little miracle that’s happened.”
Scheduled to open this summer, the new library manages to be ultra-modern while retaining a small-town feel. A 20-foot tech bar has a bank of PCs and electrical plugs for laptops. The library has Wi-Fi, and meeting space has been expanded to 4,000 square feet. “We’ll continue to be a community hub,” Beaver says. “Media and Upper Providence finally have a 21st-century library.”
1 E. Front St., Media.
Lower Merion Township has six libraries, and Ardmore’s was its first. In 1899, the Women’s Club of Ardmore rented a room in the Merion Title & Trust building and turned it into a free lending library. In 1917, the facility moved to its current home on Ardmore Avenue, and though it went through several expansions, it never lost its intimate feel.
Ardmore’s library was smaller and a bit more obscure than its cousins, which is why it took several years for the Lower Merion board of commissioners to approve funding for much-needed repairs. “Some points of view were that people didn’t use libraries anymore,” says Annette Sussman, president of the Ardmore Free Library’s board of trustees. “The board spoke up in all the meetings, demonstrating with statistics how much the community used the libraries.”
Renovations were finally approved in November 2014, with the caveat that the library raise $200,000 on its own. That task fell to Judy Yellin, enlisted to chair the capital campaign. “Ardmore is a small community but has dedicated residents and active businesspeople,” she says. “Plus, the board is a real working board, so we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.”
After a $2.43 million renovation, the library reopened in January 2016. Gone are the dim lights and helter-skelter shelves. It’s now more user-friendly, and the elevator works, making the previously abandoned loft accessible. The children’s space is modern and welcoming, and new private rooms can host meetings.
Sussman points to Yellin as the “force of nature” behind the project. “It’s something that I’m passionate about,” Yellin says. “I believe in the idea of libraries and their educational and community purposes. If you love your town, you want it to have a fantastic library.”
108 Ardmore Ave., Ardmore.
Bill Powell, president of Penn Wynne Library’s board of trustees
Seven dollars and 35 books were all that a group of Penn Wynne women needed to start the town’s first library in 1929. But much more than that would be required to expand it in 2015. The Lower Merion Township board of commissioners approved a renovation budget of just over $3 million, but only after vociferous lobbying from the Penn Wynne Library board of trustees.
“It went back and forth several times, and we were never certain, up until the day we closed for renovation, that we’d get the funds,” says board of trustees president Bill Powell. “Judy Soret, our head librarian, did an excellent job running the numbers and showing the indisputable fact that the library was heavily used, despite its age. Every town in this township deserves to have a fantastic library.”
In January 2015, the library closed for renovations, which went off without a hitch. The library reopened in March 2016, and Penn Wynne residents turned out in droves to explore the new children’s section, reading porch, upgraded technology and seating.
Since the reopening, the library has enrolled hundreds of new members. “The other day, I drove by in the early evening and saw kids sitting in chairs reading,” Powell says. “I thought that was a great advertisement for libraries.”
130 Overbrook Parkway, Wynnewood
Larry Way (left), treasurer for the Phoenixville Public Library’s board of directors, with board president Michael English
Phoenixville’s library is in the middle of a makeover—though not a physical one. The building’s most recent overhaul was in 2012, when a $1.2 million renovation resulted in a new roof and storm windows, expanded its computer area and children’s library, and created a young-adult space.
Not much else was needed to keep the building in tip-top shape, thanks mostly to its expert construction. It’s one of the more than 2,500 built between 1883 and 1929 in Scotland, the United States and 10 other countries, with funds and architectural plans donated by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. The philanthropist bestowed libraries only on towns that demonstrated firm commitments to reading and education. Phoenixville’s opened in 1902.
Currently in the works is a makeover of the library’s public image. Michael English wants everyone to know that Phoenixville’s is a library of the future. “We are not only high-tech but comprehensive in what we offer the community,” says English, president of the library’s board of directors. “There are many computers and other technology services, and we have wonderful programs for children, teens and avid adult readers.”
Board treasurer Larry Way says the number of library users continues to rise. “It’s a center of learning and of community,” he says. “People of all ages and creeds can walk through the door. As far as I’m concerned, libraries are the best features of any town.”
183 Second Ave., Phoenixville