Over antipasto, red snapper and bread pudding, 200 Roland Park library-lovers broke bread at a white-tablecloth fund-raiser at Loco Hombre, each paying $75 toward the cause of keeping their branch library open.
Lively conversation and laughter masked the seriousness of their goal: to add $15,000 to the money Roland Park has privately raised to finance the expansion of the gray stone library at 5108 Roland Ave.
In three months, the neighborhood surpassed its fund-raising goal of $200,000 as part of an atypical private-public partnership between city government and a community.
"This is a unique funding mechanism for us," said James C. Welbourne, deputy director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, who attended the fund-raiser. City officials confirmed that the deal calls for the city to fund $800,000 of the building expansion, while the neighborhood will pitch in at least $200,000.
The library project was undertaken in 1998 when residents realized their 76-year-old branch was not large enough to meet the requirements of the library's plan for the 21st century.
The abrupt closing of the century-old Charles Village library branch on St. Paul Street served as a catalyst for the campaign to save their familiar building from a similar fate.
Skeptics thought it unlikely that the library would be saved. "There were a lot of people who doubted this could be done," said Susan Newhouse, chairwoman of Roland Park Civic League's library committee. "Now, it's bringing people together, seeing we can actually control our destiny."
Newhouse and a band of volunteers employed sophisticated tactics -- they mobilized the community, sought pro bono legal and architectural advice -- to persuade library officials and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to approve the expansion, an agreement they say will be honored by Mayor Martin O'Malley.
"It's a new way to do things," said Mary Ann Mears, a sculptor and mother of four. "Hopefully, it's a nice model for other neighborhoods. The political dynamics were not at all confrontational with the city."
Charles Village residents held sidewalk protests and took the city to court when their library was closed. However, Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan ruled that Pratt Director Carla D. Hayden had the authority to close the branch.
Kaplan attended the Roland Park fund-raiser. "My kids always used it. It's essential to the North Baltimore locale, the schools there, the older people who can walk."
The goal has shifted to raising $500,000, with the additional $300,000 to be used for an endowment fund, David Blumberg, head of the library initiative, told the gathering in after-dinner remarks.
Edward L. Dopkin, owner of Loco Hombre, provided the venue as his contribution. Other than the library, he said, "We don't have one public meeting place that brings everybody together."
A painting of the library by Greg Otto, an artist who lives in Roland Park, was on display. Otto said, "I've always wanted to paint the arching windows. They're such a core part of Roland Park."
Whether the affluent North Baltimore enclave will set an example for other communities with old libraries is not clear. Charles Village residents rallied and raised money, mostly from the state and foundations, to start a private nonprofit organization in their gingerbread library building, the Village Learning Place. It opens May 6.
Sandra Sparks, chairwoman of the Village Learning Place board, said the two cases are not comparable. "There isn't the same individual wealth in Charles Village or most other city neighborhoods."