When the main branch of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library opened its doors in 1933, America was in the throes of the Great Depression, so organizers and officials decided it would be unseemly to throw the party a new city institution would normally warrant.
Now the architectural and cultural jewel on Cathedral Street has undergone a $115 million renovation, and it has finally received the gala it deserves.
Thousands packed a polished, retrofitted, upgraded and restored library at a grand reopening bash on Saturday, an extravaganza that featured everything from the rollout of new film and recording studios for teens and expanded computer facilities to book and poetry readings, drumming performances, hat- and jewelry-making activities and standing-room-only puppet shows.
Hordes of patrons poured through the front doors shortly after Enoch Pratt Free Library CEO and President Heidi Daniel stood with dignitaries and cut a ceremonial red ribbon, and as they filled a newly bright, glistening central hall, many gazed up at the refurbished ceiling, cell phones aloft, as the sounds of drumming furnished by local duo A1 Chops reverberated off the marble walls.
Debbie Tatum of Baltimore, 64, stood with her grandchildren, Arianna and James Wheeler, 9 and 7, respectively, and seemed hardly able to believe her eyes.
A lifelong fan and user of the Pratt, she wore a T-shirt that read “I’m a book-a-holic on the road to recovery — just kidding, I’m on my way to the library" above a picture of Snoopy hugging a pile of books.
That and a big smile.
Tatum said she was thrilled at the unexpected brightness of the space, the improved lighting throughout the building, the addition of multiple forms of new technology, and the expansion and renovation of the beloved children’s library on the ground floor.
But she was just as reassured to look to her right and see patrons signing books out of what seemed to be the same checkout area she enjoyed when as a child in the neighborhood when her parents treated her to visits as a reward for good behavior.
“This is amazing!” she said. “I can pass those traditions along to my grandchildren, but I’m happy to see they kept a few things for us Baby Boomers, too."
The day did have the feel of a celebration of both the old and the new.
The many visitors craning their necks saw views throughout the first and second levels of carefully repainted, retouched and restored ceiling art from the 1930s. And despite the fears of some skeptics who worried that the renovations might reduce the importance of books to the space, guests filed along sprawling sections of freshly stocked shelves, many joining growing lines to check out some of their favorites on the special day.
Ten-year-old Natalie Huot of South Baltimore, a self-described “bookworm,” had a sack full of tomes, including a hardbound copy of “The Secret Keepers” a 512-page mystery adventure by Trenton Lee Stewart, author of another of her favorites, the young-adult bestseller “The Mysterious Benedict Society.”
Another feature Kristin Speaker, Natalie’s mother, said she appreciates about the refurbished Pratt is its array of new facilities for adults, including computers, space and trained staff for people seeking employment.
“It’s inspiring to learn about all these new programs,” Speaker said. “This is more than just a place to check out books. It’s a place where people can enrich their lives.”
On the second floor, young people lined up to try the facilities in the new Teen Learning and Leadership Center, where a gaggle of young ladies tried out their moves to the video game “Just Dance,” and others tried out sewing machines.
Around the corner, 5-year-old Morgan Pickford, a kindergartner from Randallstown, sat at a long table with her mother, Janel, and with the assistance of a volunteer from the educational nonprofit FutureMakers, assembled a “hypnotizer” ― a whirligig powered by batteries and electrical circuits drives a and a small propeller.
The maker station is an example of the kind of creative activities that will be offered in the space from now on.
In the renovated and expanded children’s library, members of the Black Cherry Puppet Theater enthralled a packed house of youngsters in the new Night Room, a darkened theater with an almost planetarium-like feel, as others lined up in another room to make puppets or hats. Parents and children gazed at a re-tiled version of the venerable goldfish pond, and others drifted in and out of a wooden replica of the library itself, a space where children can play with dolls and puppets, read or simply find a private area.
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Daniel, clad in red polo shirt like the rest of her staff, made her way throughout the building during the celebration, shaking hands, chatting with patrons and listening to their stories, many of which she said described their long-term relationship with a building that was a touchstone for memories.
Four hours after standing with the likes of Maryland’s two U.S. Senators, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, former U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young, and Benjamin Rosenberg, chair of the Pratt Library Boards of Directors and Trustees, and cutting the red ribbon, Daniel seemed tired, excited and gratified.
Attendance had not yet been counted, but the numbers were clearly well into the thousands, Daniel said, exceeding even her staff’s optimistic expectations. But what struck her most about the library’s first and biggest grand party were the tales patrons shared ― of coming to the building to do research as kids, of visiting with their families, of simply coming for a visit, relaxing and getting out of the summer heat.
It was truly the people’s library then, Daniel said, and now it has a chance to carry that tradition well into the future, and then some.
“We’re so happy that people were as excited about today as we were," she said. “What that tells me is that people truly love the Pratt.”