Neighborhood fights to give old library new life

In The City That Reads, there should be no vacant libraries.

But in The City That Needs, library branches close and surplus buildings may be sold -- or razed.


Often the best communities can do under these circumstances is make sure the closed libraries are put to some other good use.

That's what the Union Square Association is trying to do with former Enoch Pratt Free Library Branch No. 2 at Calhoun and Hollins streets, one block from the H. L. Mencken House. Described in the files of Baltimore's preservation commission as "the finest and most important building in the Union Square neighborhood" -- the stone and brick building now stands boarded-up and graffiti-ridden, a landmark in search of a future.


Designed in a Victorian Romanesque style by Charles L. Carson, the library opened in 1886. Contributing to its charm are Romanesque arches, terra cotta panels and intricate floral decorations on the chimney.

The building is one of four original branches built by Enoch Pratt as part of his campaign to give Baltimore a free circulating library. Identical in design, the others are on Light Street (converted to a residence), Fremont Avenue (now a church), and Ellwood Avenue (still a library).

Mr. Mencken visited Old No. 2 frequently and even referred to it in a chapter of "Happy Days" entitled "Larval Stage of a Bookworm."

"I had a card before I was nine," the author recalled, "and began an almost daily harrying of the virgins at the delivery desk."

Union Square's library was closed in 1964 after a larger branch opened at Hollins and Payson streets. For a number of years after that, it was an outpost of the Urban Services Agency. Now it's used as storage by the library system, and usually remains locked.

Community leaders have grown increasingly concerned that city officials find a use for the building, whose deteriorating condition has a blighting influence on the neighborhood. Some would like to see it reopen as a community reading room and gathering place, staffed by volunteers. Others envision an art gallery, children's museum or some other attraction that could be operated in tandem with the Mencken House at 1524 Hollins St.

"We have to save this building," said Larry Blim, president of the Union Square Association. In its boarded-up condition, "it's a big embarrassment to the city and the Pratt and the neighborhood. It's a target for vandalism."

Money is the chief obstacle to preparing the building for a new use. Repairs to its slate roof and copper gutters, removal of asbestos, and upgrading mechanical systems could cost $500,000 or more.


But residents are making some progress. Two high-level Pratt administrators toured the building in September with community leaders, city planners and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who organized the meeting.

The Pratt officials made it clear their first priority is to keep current branches open and in good condition, and that doesn't leave much money for former branches. But they promised to consider any proposals the residents make.

Since then, the community has formed a task force to explore ideas for recycling the building and financing renovations. Neighborhood leaders are also talking about establishing a Friends of the Pratt support group and joining with the Hollins Market Neighborhood Association to hire an engineer. The Union Square association has already raised more than $6,000 from its annual "Cookie Tour" of restored homes to help pay for some of the work.

The activity is giving new hope to those who feared the building was doomed. "As Mencken's library, it has a lot of significance," said Molly Neal, a Union Square resident and past curator of the Mencken House. "We're lucky it's still there. It could be a great asset to the neighborhood."

City planner Chris Ryer would like to see a famous Maryland author step forward to underwrite the cost of repairs or head a fund drive. "We'd like to find a literary club or some other organization that would keep the building open to the public at least part of the time, and really take care of it," he said. "We want it to be something special."

Evening of jazz to benefit museum


Friends of The Contemporary, a two-year-old "museum with moxie" that has staged exhibits at unlikely locations around Baltimore, such as the old Pat Hays Buick showroom, will sponsor a $50-per-head cabaret at Spike and Charlie's, 1225 Cathedral St., on Nov. 14 at 9 p.m. Proceeds will provide support for the organization, which recently moved its offices to the former Greyhound bus station on Howard Street.