New Canaan Library on Rebuilding Plans: Keeping 1913 Building ‘Not Viable’

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Proposed rebuilt New Canaan Library. Rendering courtesy of New Canaan Library

In the 15 years that successive New Canaan Library boards have studied the prospect of a rebuilt facility, conducting focus groups and hiring architects to come up with designs, it’s become clear that the best plan for the community requires demolition of what remains of the original structure there, officials said Tuesday.

Though they carefully considered a renovation or incorporation of the 1913 building into a future library, “each board came to the same conclusion,” Alicia Wyckoff, a former president of the organization, told members of the Board of Finance during a budget hearing at Town Hall.

“In order to get the types of spaces and functions of a modern, 21st Century library that our community is requesting—more programming spaces, meeting and study rooms, more places for the teaching and learning that is so important to our community today—we need to build a new library on a new footprint,” Wyckoff said, speaking on behalf of the library, its board and supporters. “These considerations led to the Midcentury Modern design that pays homage to an historically important architectural movement and one for which New Canaan is well known.”

She added, “Furthermore, as these plans came into focus, it became abundantly clear that it was not viable to retain the 1913 building for a multitude of reasons. First, it is not financially feasible for us. To preserve the original structure would require rebuilding it at a cost of well over $2 million. It would need a new foundation, walls, plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and would need to be brought up to current Building Code and ADA compliance. Second, keeping the structure in situ would severely compromise the design of the new library and town green, which is completely supported by our donors and is the basis of the $16 million that we have already raised. It also violates the entire intention of the integrated landscaping and town green. What we’ll be left with is an out-of-place structure in the middle of this beautiful open space that has been designated for future concerts, Shakespeare in the Park, other programming and simply a beautiful, centrally located community space for our citizens. Finally, keeping the 1913 building serves no purpose for our library: We can’t use it and most certainly we can’t afford to maintain it.”

The comments come as the finance board considers a Five-Year Capital Plan with four $2.5 million payments that would be made to New Canaan Library over the next four fiscal years as a $10 million total town contribution to its widely discussed rebuilding project.

Board of Finance Chair Todd Lavieri said at the meeting that “there is a new proposal on the table” for how the town could pay out the $10 million.

“So we may pull the whole thing out as a separate item,” Lavieri said.

Specifically, according to and Board of Finance member Kevin Moynihan, New Canaan’s first selectman, the town could authorize funding through a special appropriation this summer. The finance board is scheduled to vote on the fiscal year 2021 budget Thursday, passing it along to the Town Council, and to recommend a Five-Year Capital Plan. Items within the Capital Plan still require further public hearings and votes on bond issuances.

The library’s plan calls for a new 48,000-square-foot building with a 300-seat auditorium, rooftop terrace, café, public concourse, fireplace, two large conference rooms and a “town green” at the corner of Main and Cherry Streets. The library has committed to raising $20 million of the overall estimated $30 million project, and has received 55-plus gifts of $100,000 or more from private donors. Library officials are asking the town for a $10 million contribution.

The original library building is not included in the plans. Local preservationists are urging the library and town to keep it as a standalone facility for some future community use. 

One advocate for its preservation, Charles Robinson, asked Board members to secure financial information from New Canaan Library, including forward budgets “and what could be expected from a new building.”

15 thoughts on “New Canaan Library on Rebuilding Plans: Keeping 1913 Building ‘Not Viable’

  1. This new narrative — that 15 years of Library boards have rejected preservation of the original 1913 building — should ring false for many New Canaanites. In fact, less than 4 years ago, when asked if the original 1913 facade of the library would be preserved, the answer was YES. As written up in NewCanaanite, June 15, 2016.

    • Let me provide full context for what you’re saying here, Cam. First, here is the statement from Alicia Wyckoff from this week:

      “The library supporters’ mission today is to build a new library that will meet the needs of our community for the next 100 years. Over the past 15 years, successive boards have studied the many different issues regarding building a new library–where to build it, what design and how much we can afford. We conducted focus groups to get feedback from the community and eventually we hired two of the country’s leading architects to provide us with preliminary designs to meet the community’s needs. Countless hours were dedicated and careful consideration was given to renovating the existing library and looking at ways to incorporate the 1913 structure into new plans. We understand and appreciate the strong sentiment and emotional attachment to the existing library and what is left of the 1913 building. But each board came to the same conclusion: In order to get the types of spaces and functions of a modern, 21st Century library that our community is requesting—more programming spaces, meeting and study rooms, more places for the teaching and learning that is so important to our community today—we need to build a new library on a new footprint. These considerations led to the Midcentury Modern design that pays homage to an historically important architectural movement and one for which New Canaan is well known. Furthermore, as these plans came into focus, it became abundantly clear that it was not viable to retain the 1913 building for a multitude of reasons. First, it is not financially feasible for us. To preserve the original structure would require rebuilding it at a cost of well over $2 million. It would need a new foundation, walls, plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and would need to be brought up to current Building Code and ADA compliance. Second, keeping the structure in situ would severely compromise the design of the new library and town green, which is completely supported by our donors and is the basis of the $16 million that we have already raised. It also violates the entire intention of the integrated landscaping and town green. What we’ll be left with is an out-of-place structure in the middle of this beautiful open space that has been designated for future concerts, Shakespeare in the Park, other programming and simply a beautiful, centrally located community space for our citizens. Finally, keeping the 1913 building serves no purpose for our library. We can’t use it and most certainly we can’t afford to maintain it.”

      The meeting you are referring to was a Board of Finance meeting in June 2016. The finance board discussed whether the town could contribute toward the library’s acquisition of the Jones mid-block property along South Avenue. The library board itself was not there, because its annual board meeting was held the same night. But Chris Le Bris, a finance board member who had served as a library trustee, fielded some questions. When asked about keeping the original stone facade, he said this (go here to see the video): “It will be incorporated. It’s a very small bulldog when you look at it. The actual 1913 base building. All the plans that we have are for the preservation of that building and its incorporation into the final designs. And they will have to work with the architects to see how that would be best [done].”

      I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether these statements are at odds. My own view is that they are not, though I am seeing that Wyckoff was extremely careful in her wording Tuesday night. She said “dedicated and careful consideration” was given to preserving the 1913 structure, but ultimately the library board found that was not feasible. I am seeing the response that Le Bris gave as an example of that consideration—at the time of the meeting, the library still planned to preserve the building. I don’t see anything in the plans that Le Bris is reviewing that mention the town green which became one centerpiece of the plans that the library would develop and share with prospective donors when the capital campaign got underway. Is it realistic or fair to require a private property owner such as the library to have plans for a rebuilding project finalized even before they know just what parcel they’ll be able to develop?

      • Neele,

        The library owns its building and land, not the town. Where’s the confusion?

        The library receives a contribution from the town each year toward its operations and received a one-off special appropriation to help acquire the South Avenue parcel. Now it’s asking for $10 million to help build the new facility. From what I’ve heard at these public hearings, the library views itself as a community asset and views taxpayer support as a contribution toward that asset. For others, it seems, the town’s support of the library is an opportunity for leverage, a pretext to direct this major project toward preserving a structure that the library itself cannot use and wants to remove in order to create the town green.

        Some people think keeping the 1913 building would spoil the project because it’d be out of place next to the rebuilt facliity instead of the town green, others think it would look good and that the town green is not a good idea. That’s a difference of opinion—one professionally rendered, the other mission-driven. As I understand the construction plan, New Canaanites likely will have a chance to judge for themselves, because the new building will be up and operating at the time a demolition permit application goes in for the old part. As discussed in a recent podcast with two proponents of preservation, that’s the point where those who favor keeping the old building will activate, in the form of a formal letter submitted to the chief building official opposing demolition and seeking a 90-day delay, per town ordinance.

        What happens at that point, who knows. By then there could be an even stronger appetite in the community for the planned town green, and there could be a clear vision for what the 1913 building would be used for and how it would be maintained/funded. The last time local preservationists pushed hard for preservation of a building was what some called the ‘Mead Park Brick Barn’—an actual public building—and in the end, as you know, demolition commenced because a promised viable plan did not materialize, in the view of the Board of Selectmen.

        • Really Mike? Sounds like you’re letting the Library write this narrative.

          You say we the taxpayers having been “donating” 2/3 of the operating costs to the Library? My guess is I can’t take a charitable deduction on that. And how is that so many of our tax paying residents have been completely unaware of that donation?

          Now we are being asked to “donate” $10,000,000?
          At this point we need to drop the “donation” game and acknowledge that we are partners with the Library…significant partners. And partners do get a voice!

          PS: As long as we are going down memory lane, let’s look back to Town Hall. Those pesky tax paying residents voiced their opinion then too.

  2. Call me old fashioned, but I see a library as a place to read books, research or just chill and have a quiet place. I’m not sure what a mid-century modern would add to that experience, other than increase the costs for the town. There’s more benefits in increasing curb appeal around the village with that $10M. My daughter goes to the library at least twice a week and I asked her if she disliked anything. Her answer: No.

    As individuals we tend to be more fiscally responsible but as a collective, we keep spending on projects that have marginal improvement. One of the major outcomes of the recent survey was the increase in taxes so I don’t see how spending another $10M addresses that. The building is not what our kids read. And they don’t need a cafe. Spend the money on books, media, technology, courses, talks, etc. That’s what I would call tremendous improvement.

    • Since when are libraries just for kids? The new library plans are amazing and the sooner we can get it built the better. Have you been to the libraries in Westport, Richfield and Darien? It’s crazy how much more advanced they are. And highly enjoyable. Modern-day libraries are for more than reading books. They can, and should, be for work spaces, creative studios, performances, meetings, socializing, any and all things digital and, yes, for reading books. Having a cafe is a great thing as well. Times have changed, and our neighbors in every direction have shown just how incredible libraries can change with them. It’s a shame the old structure won’t work with the new plans, but so be it. Preserving it shouldn’t come at the expense of moving forward with the new, fantastic design and vision of the new library. I suspect when it’s built you’ll find yourself wanting to visit as often as possible – book or no book.

      • So well said. I couldn’t agree more! I grew up in New Canaan and am back here raising my kids. While I appreciate the 1913 facade, I am excited about what the new building and a true town green will mean for our town.

  3. Michael, I think the confusion is the clarity of the last statement in your response comment.

    You refer to the 1913 original building and site as the private property of the Library. Yet, unbeknown to most town taxpayers, we have been funding 2/3 of the operating cost of the library at a tune of approximately $2,400,000 per year!?!?

    We are now being asked to give straight out $10,000,000 towards the new $30,000,000 project.

    How can you, or anyone else in our town government, truly refer to the Library as a private entity?

    Part of those dollars will be to used to “give” New Canaan a Town Green and to demolish the original 1913 building. Will we hold the deed or will there be an easement to protect that property?

  4. Thanks for the added detail, Mike. Please note that when Mr. LeBris spoke to the 2016 board of finance, he was not just a library trustee, he had recently stepped down as President of the library board of trustees. And on July 8, 2014, also in NewCanaanite, your readers saw this write-up: “Officials long have said that early community surveys showed that New Canaanites wanted certain pieces of the current building, including its original stone façade (facing Main), to be preserved.
    Le Bris [as board president] said an area of the rebuilt library that includes places where visitors would gather—such as an art gallery, meeting rooms and events spaces—‘would incorporate the legacy building and that would have a more traditional look into the architecture and feel of the town.’”
    I understand, of course, that the property and plans have changed, but I don’t see how it can now be claimed that 15 years of the library board have advocated demolition of the 1913 library, when the record clearly shows otherwise.

  5. Personally I don’t recognize the appeal of the old building. Do those who defend it want to preserve the building in situ? Or is it the façade that holds such appeal? In that case, could the façade be incorporated into an interior wall? The Met Museum has some similar interior walls.

    I can’t wait for us to have a new, spacious, bright library!

  6. Hi Deborah, although I’m sure we’re all completely in support of the need for the new library, there are many people looking to retain the 1913 Library building in situ for many reasons – quick info is available on Facebook at @friendsofour1913library. The old library is in extremely good condition (ironically it’s the “newer” 1970s additions that are failing), a nearly entirely intact, dry building with no structural issues that I’ve read, contrary to what I’ve read put out by the library. Some reasons are architectural, some wish to retain that corner as an entry to Town, some are probably “history – related,” but many are financially-based. There are very large costs involved in demolishing, disposing of the old building but especially, in creating and maintaining the proposed new town green.

    Again, there’s great info all over newcanaanite.com if you search “library” and on @friendsofour1913library as well as at https://newcanaanpreservationalliance.org/friends-of-our-1913-library/

  7. My comment is primarily addressed to Mr. Ault, and secondarily to all.

    I am performing due diligence into what actually occurred in Darien before and after that financially well managed and “closest comparable to New Canaan” town built and occupied its new library.

    The first gross observations are that per capita library visits increased in the year that Darien occupied its new library, but have consistently declined in the nearly ten years since. Unfortunately, the Town of Darien’s contributions to its new library operations per capita increased markedly over the same measurement period that library visits declined.

    I urge my fellow New Canaan taxpayers to perform their own due diligence into this significant proposed capital expenditure.

    I urge my fellow New Canaan taxpayers to learn for themselves how the present value of a $10 million capital expenditure is actually $63 million plus, without extraordinary increases in the growth of New Canaan’s majority contributions to its library’s annual operations, which have occurred in financially better managed Darien.

    Our Town leaders must receive all of our best analysis to get this investment right. Please, let us all broaden and deepen our due diligence and move beyond renderings and fly through animations.

    • While I’m not entirely sure why I was so lucky to get singled out in your response, I will say that as a New Canaan taxpayer I fully support this initiative and would happily have more of my tax dollars go towards it if that were the case. You seem to imply that spending $$ on the library here is maybe not justified since, in Darien, some people stopped going to their library. Maybe I’m reading that wrong, and if so I apologize for that interpretation. But if that is the implication, then I simply disagree with it. Building an amazing library and then finding ways to make sure people visit it are two separate things. Having the amazing library in the first place helps. Driving traffic to it is something I’m sure the many smart, creative people of New Canaan can solve. Just as a lot of very smart, creative people in our town have done due diligence over the past many years and have arrived at the conclusion a new library is a good idea. The new architecture plans are incredible, the town wants to support it and I say the sooner we break ground the better.

  8. Mike – what I am seeing as unfortunate in this piece, in your clarifications and in the clarification letter from the Historical Society the other day, is that this topic is being presented as taking sides – the Library against the preservationists. The Friends of Our 1913 Library are not opposing the new library project with that one exception – keep the 1913 building where it is.
    As anyone in a design field would know, there is no design anywhere no matter how lauded the designer, which when first presented did not receive critiques which required the designer to go back to the drawing board to incorporate comments. I realize the Library has been working on this for many years, but the public was only allowed to see it in mid-January and the request to consider saving the 1913 building was fairly immediate.
    Mike – I am confused by your statement that a town green vs. the aesthetics of the 1913 building in relation to the new, modern library is, “a difference of opinion – one professionally rendered, the other mission-driven”. I don’t get the comparison. Are you saying that the inclusion of a town green is a professional opinion, but the suggestion to keep the 1913 building is not? Also are you using the word “rendered” in place of the word “given”, or are you stating that because there is a professional rendering then the new library with the green is a professional opinion? Are you also stating that the desire to save the 1913 building is un-professional because it comes from a group of volunteers from varied (professional) backgrounds? If so, I think there is a lack of understanding concerning the field of preservation and what preservationists do on a daily basis.
    In general, there seem to be a plethora of mis-understandings/mis-statements on this topic, and a whole lot of inflexibility/resistance, and certainly plenty of opinions, professional or otherwise.

  9. Mr. Ault:

    Thank you for your generous offer!

    Please mark my name first on your list of New Canaan residents whose increased taxes you will cover.

    Kindly revert with your address, and I will invoice you when I have my tax bill in hand.

    Sincerely,

    Charles L. Robinson

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