Some Push for a Library at Church

Posted on 24 July 2008

By Raphael Odell Shapiro

At last Wednesday’s monthly board of trustees meeting at the John Jermain Memorial Library, trustee in charge of fundraising Susie Merrell was the first to broach the subject of the United Methodist Church building acquisition. In a grueling meeting that had many of the trustees sneaking glances at their watches, the controversial topic dominated the discussion.

“I’m very committed to investigating the church,” said Merrell. “But we would need $15,000 to $17,000 now just for the investigation,” she added. 

Merrell stressed the importance of finding people to underwrite funding up front as opposed to public fundraising. Merrell proposed calling upon the people who brought the church to the board’s attention as a possibility for their expansion plan, suggesting they were in, for lack of a better term, a “put up or shut up” situation.

Trustee Nancy Hallock didn’t see the benefit of being at the church as opposed to building a new space in Mashashimuet Park.

“We’ll either need money to build or money to renovate,” she said. “I agree, they should have to foot the bill if they want us to reconsider.”

Hallock reminded the board that the church will by no means “answer [their] prayers,” – that it would require a lot of work, but still would not be the perfect solution. Merrell interjected that if the board fails to at least explore fully the viability of using the United Methodist Church space, they run the risk of alienating a segment of the population.

For years the library has been searching for ways to expand beyond the walls of the historic domed building on Main Street that it has occupied since 1910. The board has maintained a commitment to the “one library, two buildings” concept – renovating the original historic library while creating a new space somewhere near the library. The most likely, and certainly the most discussed scenario has involved using a triangular lot in the northwest corner of Mashashimuet Park for the second library space.

However, at a June 10 meeting, the board of trustees was approached by three area residents, Stephen Longmire, Liz Joyce and Rob Calvert, who asked the board to consider converting the former United Methodist Church building, located just a block away from the John Jermain Memorial Library on Madison Street. The church is now on the market after being purchased by former Southampton Town Councilman Dennis Suskind. Suskind’s purchase of the historic edifice was met with public opposition from some who hoped it would remain in the public sphere.

Library director Catherine Creedon, along with board member Carl Peterson, met with Southampton Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi to discuss whether or not a town purchase could be made through the Community Preservation Fund (CPF) for conversion to a library. According to Creedon, while there was precedent backing this kind of purchase through CPF, she had yet to hear if the Southampton Town Board determined it would be an appropriate use of the funds.

Creedon also reported on a meeting she, library board president Christiane Neuville and Peterson attended with architects Herbert Newman and Michael Scott, of the firm Herbert S. Newman & Partners of New Haven, Connecticut. Herman S. Newman Partners were selected early this summer, after an extensive search, as the firm which would help the library create their new space. The firm is not yet under contract with the library, but several written agreements will soon be drafted, outlining the divisions of services and programs.

On July 10, the two principals for the firm traveled to Sag Harbor to meet with the sub-committee, which Creedon has dubbed informally the “Architect Liaison Committee,” at the Methodist Church. According to Creedon, in conversations she had had with Scott beforehand, he had expressed that “the firm will never say something cannot be done.” Upon arriving at the church, however, the two architects’ comments were anything but positive. Scott reportedly admitted that the church would be “very difficult to convert.”

The two men expressed concern about the structure of the building. Evidently, the wooden frame does not meet today’s standards in terms of a public space. If the building remained a church and continued to be used as such, no reevaluation of its structure would be necessary. Another issue is floor loads. Without major reconstruction, the floors of the historic church cannot withstand the weight of thousands of books, not to mention the library’s patrons.

The architects were also worried about the five different levels within the church building, noting it would make accessibility difficult. More staff would also be needed to cover each level. They also noted there is not enough space for parking at this time.

Newman, who appreciated the building’s historic appeal, was reportedly “devastated” when informed that the Methodist Church congregation would be taking the stained glass windows with them to their new location. He warned the three members of the sub-committee that taking the building’s aluminum siding into account, and considering the major reconstruction needed, what may be left is a “windowless, aluminum-clad shell.”

Scott affirmed that the church’s proximity to the library is really the only advantage, that despite the beauty of the space it would need to be considerably stabilized. Creedon reported that Scott found it an “interesting prospect to convert,” but for the sake of the building, it would be best if it remained a church. After that a use might be a public assembly hall, and next best a private residence. A library was fourth on the architects’ list.

As for a new building at the park, the architects have imagined it as a kind of gateway into Sag Harbor. They also projected that financially the board would achieve up to one-and-a-half times the library on the triangular lot, with fewer future costs, as they could at the church space.

Some of the board members were encouraged to hear on Wednesday that Scott, in a letter of intent, was at least willing to pursue a more thorough inspection of the church. Trustee Diane Gaites was not.

“I just think everything we’re saying now is null and void,” she emphasized, observing that Southampton Town cannot fund the library, as it is not a preservation foundation. Board member Carol Williams interjected that state assemblyman Fred Thiele said that was not the case, and that she would follow up on that information.

But Gaites reaffirmed her stance. She said that after four years of looking into the expansion, she believes the board is “going backwards.” Gaites reminded the board that 80 percent of library patrons live outside of the village, perhaps rendering proximity a moot point. She ended the night’s discussion by concluding passionately, “I think we are spinning our wheels and spending time on something we shouldn’t be.”

 Above photo taken by kathryn g. menu

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