NEWS

Preserving a treasure: Improvements at William Hall Library honor past, prepare for future

Posted 7/9/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE It was in 1927 that William Henry Hall's vision for a public library on the grounds of his former Broad Street estate in Edgewood at last came to fruition. A Providence Sunday Journal story from the time of the library's dedication

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NEWS

Preserving a treasure: Improvements at William Hall Library honor past, prepare for future

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It was in 1927 that William Henry Hall’s vision for a public library on the grounds of his former Broad Street estate in Edgewood at last came to fruition.

A Providence Sunday Journal story from the time of the library’s dedication calls it “a building of rare beauty” and describes its interior features as fostering a “true library atmosphere of studious calm and quiet.”

Now, nearly a century later, the William H. Hall Library has received interior improvements and undergone the initial phase of an exterior renewal – one planned prior to, and which saw its completion hastened by, the pandemic.

The improvements, library staff and trustees say, honor the library’s rich past while bringing a new, inviting dimension to the facility. The work has also shored up some essential infrastructure for years to come.

“We really respect the historic nature of the site,” Michael Moonan, a Hall trustee and chair of the library committee who works as a landscape architect with Warwick-based BL Companies, said during a recent tour of the building. “Everything we implemented, we tried to keep a historical look.”

“It had been probably since the late ’80s when they did a renovation of this building,” added Ed Garcia, director of the Cranston Public Library.

He continued: “Now that we’re open with full services now … The response to everything has been really fantastic.”

The latest work at Hall resulted from a confluence of events.

Moonan said after he joined the trustees in 2011, he began to push for creation of a master plan “so as we made improvements, we knew what we wanted to do, even if we did it piecemeal.”

While he brought his professional expertise to that effort on a volunteer basis, the library hired Elena Pascarella of the firm Landscape Elements to develop the master plan as a whole. As that process continued, flooding issues both inside and outside the library led to a decision to expand the scope of what was in the works.

As Moonan put it: “Why not do the big project now and get it done?”

Around the same time, in 2019, Hall received a $320,290 grant from the Champlin Foundation to fund interior improvements. Martha Werenfels, a former trustee and principal with DBVW Architects of Providence, was hired to oversee that project, Garcia said, while Riverside-based Case Construction handled the work itself.

The project commended in the fall of 2019, Garcia and Moonan said. After a winter break, it resumed in spring 2020 – just before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Hall, like other libraries and public buildings, quickly closed its doors.

While Hall and other facilities reopened to some degree in the weeks and months that followed, the pandemic provided a bit of a silver lining – a chance to focus on the improvements at a time when the building and property were already empty.

“It was an unfortunate benefit for the project … It allowed them to really go all out and finish,” Moonan said.

Visitors to the library will readily notice the changes both inside and out.

Hall’s auditorium has been redone with new flooring and chairs. Like other spaces in the building, it also bears a new blue and gray color scheme – one more in keeping with Hall’s historic quality than the pink and teal colors used in the 1980s work.

“I always called it the ‘Miami Vice’ color scheme,” Garcia said with a laugh.

“It’s a little more historically accurate to the library,” Moonan added of the new colors.

Meeting rooms used for activities and rented out to community groups have similarly been redone, as have a staff room and the women’s restroom.

Improvements have also been made in the main library space upstairs, including new blue chairs in alcove reading spaces and the addition of power outlets at desks to allow for patrons to plug in during this visit. There is new lighting, too, and some HVAC work was done.

Perhaps the most noticeable, and celebrated, aspect of the interior upgrades has been work on a new children’s area. Robin Nyzio, Hall’s librarian since last fall, said the Cranston Public Library’s youth services team – led by Emily Brown from the Central Library and Elise Petrarca, Hall’s youth services librarian – oversaw the project.

There’s a new, more welcoming desk for the youth services librarian, providing a sort of entrance to the space. New seating has been added, including firm bean bag-style chairs designed to look like wooden logs. Other seating has been added along the windows, and new tables are in place as well.

Additionally, the children’s computer station has been updated to allow for more collaboration among young people, and the youth DVD section has been placed near the adult DVDs.

“It’s hard with an old building like this to make it really kid friendly … I think they did a really good job,” said Nyzio, who began her career as a children’s librarian.

The interior work is essentially complete, aside from some finishing touches. Among them will be the installation of a sign from the original Edgewood Public Library, which is set to hang on the lower level. It will be placed alongside a photo from the library’s former location at the intersection of Park and Warwick avenues, now home to a fire station.

“People like to know the history,” Nyzio said.

The outdoor work is also impossible to miss. Moonan said some of the work predates the master plan project – replacing of stolen railings on the front steps, for example, and a renovation of the former carriage house, now a shed, off the entrance to the property.

That shed is used by the Edgewood Garden Club to store its equipment and materials, he said, and the master plan calls for the addition of more planters – and perhaps even a greenhouse, depending on demand – in coming phases.

The front lawn has been reseeded, partially as part of the drainage improvements that were completed. Trees have been planted with an eye toward preserving the diversity of vegetation at the property. Moonan noted, for example, that a new tulip tree will eventually replacing an aging tulip tree that has required significant maintenance in recent years.

“This library, it’s always been an arboretum of sorts, so we’ve always tried to keep different varieties of trees,” he said.

There is new, unified signage on the property, including an internally lit sign sitting along Broad Street. The entrance, exit and parking lot have been repaved, and new accessible parking spaces have been added. New green drainage infrastructure has been added in the rear of the property.

Another major improvement was the creation of direct paths from the Hall Manor apartments on Warwick Avenue and the neighboring Scandinavian Communities facility to the library. The paths run through a grassy area that, with the removal of some trees, is now smoother and much more open, creating additional room for people to gather.

“One of the big goals of the project was to improve that connection, provide better access and provide ADA access,” Moonan said.

He added: “We wanted to make it park-like. This basically operates as a library and a community center, so why not have the exterior look like a park?”

There are other features, too. WiFi reaches far into the parking lot and park area, Garcia said, while dog walking stations have been installed so visitors can pick up after their pets. The Steel Yard in Providence is currently designing new bicycle racks, which will have a historic theme.

“We actually ended up getting a lot more done in phase one than we’d planned,” Moonan said. He estimated that in the past decade, a total of roughly $500,000 has been invested in exterior improvements at Hall.

The coming phases of the improvement project, Moonan said, involve additional work on the paths, more reseeding and some other touches. The Edgewood Garden Club also has some plantings in store.

Moonan and Garcia said local firms and workers were used for the project, including East Providence-based Caputo & Wick for engineering and other companies from East Greenwich and Cranston. Moonan also lauded the efforts of the other trustees and committee members.

Nyzio said with restrictions now eased and more visitors returning to the library, Hall’s staff is excited to showcase the physical improvements while celebrating the library’s continued place of importance in the community.

“I’ve got great folks that I work with,” she said. “We’ve got a great team here.”

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