- Author's note: In the interest of full disclosure, I (Mike Bruno) sit on the Historic Preservation Commission for Geneva, IL. The opinions here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the commission or the city of Geneva.
With the release of the latest draft of the (generally well conceived) Geneva Master Plan document, it got me thinking again about the state of limbo the Geneva Public Library has been in.
For some years, the Library Board has been managing space constraints in their present, Carnegie-donated facility at James and South Second Street. Last year, the board elected to purchase the properties at the northeast corner of Richards Street and State Street up to and including the vacant Cetron building in anticipation of relocating.
Though they had authority to put pen to paper and commit to that purchase, it was discovered that the bank did not have proper title to all the various properties. It now seems that the title issues have been resolved and the board now awaits the bank to call them in to execute the transaction. From past statements from the board, it seems there would be little time between environmental tests, a contract and a wrecking ball. (The sale is dependent on a clean environmental inspection.)
It is the “wrecking ball” part that has me concerned. My sources indicate that there is no interest on the part of the Library Board to consider an adaptive re-use of the Cetron building ... but let me return to that point in a moment.
I am of the opinion that the best location for our library is right where it is—as close to our pedestrian downtown as is physically possible. Separating the library (or any public service or business) from the pedestrian town center diminishes the vitality of that downtown. Given the competitive pressures that face our downtown, an exodus by any core public service cannot be taken lightly.
I am not in position to question whether or not the board has done its due-diligence in making sure all options and trends have been considered. I will assume that trends toward electronic media and away from physical media have been authoritatively considered, along with other factors that might preclude the James Street site from being serviceable well into the future. That being said, if a move is necessary, the Cetron property is probably about as good an option as can be had.
Now back to the wrecking ball ...
It is pretty clear from statements by Library Board members that there has been little to no consideration given to adaptive re-use of the Cetron building as the home for a relocated and expanded library. Last I knew, not one Library Board member has toured the building nor has any adaptive-reuse-qualified architect analyzed it for reuse. (Though there are probably legal issues that preclude their entering the building.)
This concerns me, and it should concern you, also. If architectural and/or engineering reviews have been done, they would have to be cursory at best without having entered the building. This should be reviewed thoroughly by qualified, independent professionals before the building is hauled off to a landfill. And there are a lot of reasons to explore re-use thoroughly:
First, the Cetron building is GINORMOUS!! If the board is looking for more space, then the existing building would dwarf anything they could possibly build with present zoning ordinances. Moreover; the Cetron building is industrial in construction and, ostensibly, would be suited to the unique load-carrying demands that often preclude libraries from re-using vacant buildings. (Them books is HEAVY!)
Second, a building of that scale would make neighboring community libraries seem puny. (OK, that’s probably a rather ignoble reason, but who doesn’t want the bragging rights?)
Third: It’s green. It may seem trite anymore, but it is true that the greenest building is the one that is already built. Studies show that the embodied energy of the manufacture, growth, transport, construction, demolition and disposal is enormous and is seldom recouped through new construction. This is probably all the more true with a building of this size and mass. If we are at all concerned with our carbon footprint (and what government body shouldn’t be concerned), then keeping the building is far and away the most environmentally friendly option.
Fourth: It is genuinely historic. Built sometime between 1912 and 1920, it was home to the Hiawatha Phonograph Company. (You can sometimes find the Victrola-like record players on eBay.) It also was home to the Geneva Organ Company and supplied the pipe organ for St. Charles’ Arcada Theater. After that, it did stints as the Continental Electric Company and, of course, Cetron ... one of the last vacuum tube manufacturers in the world.
Fifth: It could look pretty nice. Looking at the Cetron building now with the utilitarian additions, the slip-shod window replacements and Adams-family-esque fire escape, you would hardly consider it eye candy. But strip it of those scabby features, re-open the windows to their original, large, arched openings, add a few architectural flourishes, and it could look pretty cool lording over the west end of downtown.
The board has indicated that current thinking on library design is for everything on one floor. That’s cool. There is nothing that would preclude expanding the first floor, if necessary. Reserve the upper floors for future use or leave it semi-finished for rental or community functions. Imagine the services and events that such a space could afford!
All that being said, in the end, experts may determine that, indeed, the building is unusable or unsafe. OK. But at least let’s be sure that we had experts thoughtfully and thoroughly consider and explore those options before we haul it away to a landfill and lose the opportunities and history.
Do you feel the same? Contact the Library Board and make your thoughts known. http://www.geneva.lib.il.us/boardoftrustees