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Computers mean new life for old library branch


On a visit to Baltimore yesterday, noted newspaper columnist Russell Baker recalled the many hours he spent as a youth at the former Pratt Library branch at Calhoun and Hollins streets in Southwest Baltimore.

"I was 11 and from New Jersey. I didn't know anybody. I was in the stage when I didn't belong to any group," Baker said.

"The library was a little piece of heaven. It was my sanctuary . . . with heavy dark architecture, church beams, big and cozy. It was a comfortable place, a wonderful retreat," said Baker, who is host of public television's "Masterpiece Theatre."

He was in Baltimore for a luncheon at the Engineering Society on Mount Vernon Place, and took a few minutes to recall the venerable Pratt branch. He talked about the shelves full of books, bound in their Pratt heavy-duty blue, green and red buckram.

"They gave a wonderful color to the shelves," he said.

No individual librarian made an impression on him, but the contents of those oak shelves stayed with him.

"At one point, I went there every day," Baker said. "I was determined to read all the books in the fiction section, beginning with the letter A. I made it through three or four letters."

The library opened in 1886 and closed in 1964 when a new branch opened at Hollins and Payson streets. For the past 17 years, the building has been used by the city as a community office.

Over the years, the Romanesque-revival brick building with its enormous slate roof charmed many a book borrower. It seems to fit so comfortably into the Hollins Street scene. Now, all signs point to a new chapter in the life of this Union Square treasure.

Come May 24, the Neighborhood Design Center will hold a fund-raiser at the Camden Club, adjacent to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The hat will be passed for the last of the $305,000 needed to renovate what Baker called "a whimsical little cathedral . . . to the printed word."

Old Branch No. 2 will have a new use after it is renovated. It's slated to become a neighborhood exit ramp on the Information Highway. Computer monitors and tapping keyboards will replace the volumes of Louisa May Alcott and Alfred Conan Doyle.

The plan calls for the building to house the Pratt's computer section, the Neighborhood Design Center's headquarters, and a community assistance office.

"We want this to be a community resource . . . a central computer lab of service," said James C. Welbourne, the Pratt deputy director.

Mr. Welbourne also sits on the board of directors of the Washington-based Community Information Exchange, a group that gathers information on affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization, then sells and distributes this research.

The Exchange cites the work of a Catholic monsignor, the late Geno Baroni, who was a national leader of neighborhood revitalization in the 1960s. The group says its computer represents the institutionalization of his Rolodex.

There will be a Pratt librarian on hand to assist patrons.

"We want to bring a public building back into public use," said Carol Gilbert, director of the non-profit Neighborhood Design Center, which helps community groups across the state translate their ideas into specific plans.

According to renovation plans, the southernmost section of the building, which once housed the Humphrey Moore Institute, will remain much as it has been. This is the 1922 addition to the building, designed by architect Otto Simonson, the man who gave Baltimore the great Coke bottle-like tower on the Tower Building, which once stood at Baltimore Street and Guilford Avenue.

The Moore Institute was the gift of a native New Englander who was a bookseller at 158 W. Pratt St. before his death in 1887. He wanted to give this part of the city a place for public discussions and debates.

These quarters have been used for the past 17 years by the indefatigable Louise Hintze, a city employee who spends her days helping the people of Southwest Baltimore straighten out their lives and homes.

Miss Louise, as she's known throughout the streets and alleys, is a local legend. She has also been the building's unofficial caretaker while it awaits renovation.

"I'll be here" when renovation is complete, she vows.

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