A New Chapter for an Old Friend

Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Memorial Library is closed. It will reopen in two years with a new wing that will effectively double its size. The original building, as shown in this 1910 photo, will be restored.

    Crumbling walls. Leaky roof. Ad hoc renovations. The once elegant John Jermain Library in Sag Harbor has suffered these indignities and more.
    This week marks the beginning of a new chapter in the library’s 100-year history. Having closed on Sunday, the original building will undergo a much-needed face-lift at the same time that a new, modern wing will be added, effectively doubling the library’s size to 15,000 square feet.
    Two years ago, 84 percent of those Sag Harbor residents who voted approved a referendum to spend $9.99 million on the library’s modernization plan. (A previous referendum that proposed construction of a separate building on the edge of Mashashimuet Park failed.) The library trustees have committed to raising an additional $2 million to $3 million and a $137,667 grant in New York State public library construction funds was just approved.
    The library is a historic landmark in the Historic District of the Village of Sag Harbor, listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. As such, according to the library’s director, Cath­erine Creedon, the addition cannot detract from the pre-eminence of the original structure. Nor should it be a slavish imitation of the earlier building. Ms. Creedon cited the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, whose original structure was designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1894 and New York City’s Morgan Library as recent examples of successful modern additions to neo-Classical buildings.
    The entrance to the original 1910 square building features a pediment and four Doric columns. Its trim and base are stone as are the window lintels designed with a Greek key pattern. Other finely-wrought exterior details include wreaths, torches, and egg-and-dart molding. Inside, a marble staircase leads to the third floor octagonal reading room framed by fluted stone columns and lintels ornamented with medallions. Soaring 60 feet above the ground, the stained-glass dome was constructed by the company that built similar structures for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the National Museum in Washington, D.C.
    The new wing, designed by Richard Munday, an architect with  the Newman Group in New Haven, Conn., makes no attempt to follow the lines of the original building. It is decidedly an addition; separate from, and subordinate to, its neoClassical parent. Stepped down in height from the original, the chevron-shape three-story addition has been characterized as “bending to the circumstances of its site.” In contrast to the monumental, profoundly grounded original building, the steel-and-glass addition is light and transparent, less a bank-like repository of knowledge than an invitation to participate in a learned dialogue.
    On a functional level, the addition brings much needed modern heating, air-conditioning and, for a specific space, strict climate control to preserve the library’s collection of historic books, documents, and artifacts. The architects were able to take advantage of the original structure’s air vents as the delivery mechanism and put the “guts” of the HVAC system in the addition, thus minimizing its impact on the old building.
    The goal is to return the original structure and its contents to how they appeared on opening day in 1910. Battered and bruised tiger-oak chairs and tables will squeak no more. The majestic glass dome will be removed and re-leaded by a firm on Long Island. Chandeliers that graced the building’s stairwells will be restored and rehung. Grandfather clocks will tick once again.
    Ms. Creedon is an enthusiastic supporter of the addition. “Now we’ll be able to serve the whole community,” she remarked, noting that thanks to an elevator the newly expanded library will be accessible to the wheelchair bound and elderly. Ms. Creedon said circulation had gone up about 20 percent since she took the helm in 2007 and in addition the library had seen “a big increase in on site usage.” To accommodate this increase, the refreshed and expanded library will feature a meeting room, a new space for teens, a larger children’s section, and a business center.
    As the digital age advances, libraries are finding that their role is in flux. According to Ms. Creedon, they need to “provide information on a local level as a community service.” She said that recently a member visiting Russia was able to access John Jermain materials by downloading them remotely. With an expanded computer area, the director also said that the new library will “provide hardware and education for people who might otherwise be marginalized by digitalization.”
    During what she anticipates will be a two-year project, library members will have access to what Ms. Creedon called “the cream of our collection,” at a temporary location at 34 West Water Street in Sag Harbor that will open on July 2 and keep the same hours as the original library, including being open on Sundays during the summer months. In addition, members will have full borrowing privileges at the Bridgehampton, East Hampton, and Southampton libraries during construction.
    One thing that won’t be repaired is a long crack in the marble floor of the entrance. According to Ms. Creedon the library’s board went back and forth as to whether it should be kept, ultimately deciding it should. “It’s from the 1938 Hurricane,” she said. “I always point it out to schoolchildren when they tour the library to show a bit of history.”