Today the Towson Library is an impressive three-story brick and concrete bastion of literacy with a tower-like rotunda, a faux dragon in a faux fish pond, and enough space to accommodate the administrative offices of the Baltimore County Public Library system. The library chalked up 475,495 visits during the last fiscal year. It remains one of the busiest branches in the BCPL system.
But in 1936 its beginning was less than propitious.
The first borrower was a gentleman who took out a book on taxidermy, according to a history written by Corky Ives, branch manager from 1980 to 1998. But the borrower liked it so much that he refused to part with it and instead presented the staff with a stuffed sparrowhawk, which has long since disappeared.
"We'd rather have had the book," Ives said last week.
On May 17, the Towson Library is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its grand opening on the corner of York Road and Chesapeake Avenue in May 1974 with a celebration that includes refreshments, a cartoonist, LEGOS, and a rotating slideshow based on the history of the branch.
But the Towson Library was actually established 38 years prior when the Women's Club of Towson set up a library arranged in orange crates on the second floor of the Odd Fellows Hall at 511 York Road and began lending books on May 1, 1936.
The first manager was Mary O'Dell, who served from 1938 to 1954. There was a time when processing and cataloging was done in her York Road home. During her time as manager, in 1949, the county established the BCPL system and the Towson Library became one of what is now 19 branches.
The increasing volume of books and rates of circulation forced the library to move to successively larger quarters: by 1938, it was located in the top floor three rooms above a bakery at 420 York Road; by 1940, it had moved to the first floor six rooms and a bath of an apartment house at 25 W. Pennsylvania Ave.; by 1956, when it was the busiest branch in the system and needed space for 90,000 volumes, it was located in a rented building at 28 W. Susquehanna Ave.
The passage of a county bond issue in 1964 funded construction — that is 33,000 square feet of it — of the spacious building at 320 York Road, where it stands today.
It became less spacious as the library continued to grow. The problem was corrected in 1991 when additional construction nearly doubled its size.
Curiously, the library's new home replaced a Shell gas station that previously had replaced the house that once had been Mary O'Dell's home.
It took four years to build instead of the projected one and a half years because of lawyers, architects and engineers wrangling over the new light-weight concrete that did not meet specifications. It finally opened to the public on May 13, 1974.
The striking building that stands today has its fans and its detractors.
"It's Brutalism," remarked former county historian John McGrain.
He's not being critical, in fact, he has never complained about the design of the building and its rotunda that forces visitors entering from York Road to climb a steep three-story ramp to the library's main floor, because Bo Kelly, one of the architects, had been a close friend until he died about two years ago, and "Bo's wife is still alive," McGrain said.
Brutalism, which is loosely derived from a French term for rough concrete, was an architectural trend that flourished from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. It was, among other things, designed to convey strength and functionally.
"The library is far more impressive from the inside," McGrain said. "It's beautifully laid out, spacious and comfortable."
Charles Robinson, who was BCPL director from 1963 to1996, said he would have chosen another site — in what is now the Towson Town Center mall area. But the late Hilda Wilson, who owned Wilson Electric less than a block away, was very powerful in the business community and wanted the library near her store, so he kept his mouth shut, he said.
Hence the hillside and the ramp that is so steep it would be dangerous for wheelchairs.
Nobody seems to know why they never put an elevator in the rotunda for the public to use.
Robinson will say only that "elevators are seldom where you are and you have to wait."
He maintains that nobody uses the York Road entrance any more; they use the elevator-equipped parking garage and the bridge which connects the main floor of the library with the third floor of the garage, he said.
Meanwhile, there is a lift in the bowels of the building, but it has its own problems, according to Ives: "It's the economy version of an elevator and never went up smoothly. It seemed so precarious and scary that visitors didn't want to go up on it alone. Librarians had to escort them."
Isolated as the library was from street level, she and another members of the staff sometimes felt uncomfortable when they were working weekends and evenings when the administrative offices were closed. "Nothing ever happened," she said, "but we always worried."
Ives likes the building. "It might have looked like a bunker outside, but inside it worked for us."