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Canton branch of Enoch Pratt Library returns to glory for 130th birthday

Canton branch of Enoch Pratt Library returns to glory for 130th birthday
Eunice Anderson, chief of neighborhood library services for the Enoch Pratt Free Library, sorts books at the newly renovated Canton branch. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

It was a race to the finish line to get the venerable Canton branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library ready for business this week after its prolonged renovation.

Delivery trucks temporarily blocked O'Donnell Street as books arrived; vacuum cleaners whirred and pictures found their way to walls just a few days ago. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was among those attending the grand reopening Friday.

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Now poised to celebrate its 130th birthday in style, this neighborhood landmark again shines on O'Donnell Square at Ellwood Avenue. The library branch is a nice fit among the businesses and intersecting grid of small streets with rowhouses.

The oldest continuously operating neighborhood library in the city's system returned to regular business after the four years it took to complete the $2.9 million restoration.

Pratt director Carla Hayden called the reopening a Valentine's gift to the community.

Hayden also praised the neighborhood's patience and generosity. Members of the Friends of the Canton Library held a series of successful fundraisers; residents delivered $275,000.

In addition, major private donors included BlueCross-CareFirst, the Harvey and Lyn Meyerhoff Foundation, Jean Albrent, the Baltimore Marine Center, Herbert and Miriam Mittenthal and Safeway.

When the building first opened on Feb. 15, 1886, The Baltimore Sun reported that 250 people, including donor Enoch Pratt and his wife, "assembled in the cheerful reading room" in a building described as a "neat design, of brick and sandstone." Other dignitaries included Charles J. Bonaparte — who later became secretary of the Navy and U.S. attorney general.

The first book borrowed was a volume of Sidney Lanier poems. He was later memorialized in a bronze Charles Street monument.

The network of neighborhood libraries conceived by Enoch Pratt was a remarkable undertaking. The merchant-philanthropist placed his first six branches, which used a design similar to Canton's, from Pitcher Street and Fremont Avenue in West Baltimore to St. Paul Street in Charles Village.

Of the six original neighborhood branches, only the Canton branch — known for years as Branch No. 4 — remains under Pratt control. The other five still stand, however. Several have been converted into community centers.

Why did the renovation take four years? The short answer is termites. A troubling infestation threatened to undermine the floors.

Also, as a highly protected landmark, strict standards of historic preservation had to be met. For instance, replacing a large number of 1880s window frames with exact wooden copies was a budget breaker.

Columnist Russell Baker, a former Baltimorean, once called the Canton branch "a whimsical little cathedral, as it were, to the printed word." Painstaking preservation of the architecture after 130 years proved daunting. Plans had to be approved by historic preservation officials. One contractor withdrew from the job.

The structure's slate roof was attended to several years ago and, years before that, the community raised money to have coats of hideous white paint stripped off the library's deep rose-colored bricks and stone trimmings.

"It was quite labor-intensive and laborious to get this job done," said John Richardson, chief of facilities management. "Then there was the hiccup with the termites."

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The Pratt's design director, Jack Young, explained the murals and artwork he chose to set a visual tone for the library.

He found archival photos of the branch, and also drew on Canton's maritime heritage and its proximity to the harbor when he selected works that now fill the library's main rooms.

"Ships take people on journeys. When you walk in a library, everyone goes on a personal voyage of discovery, whether it's through a book or a computer," Young said.

"I want the kids here to go on a journey," he said. "You lead them and let their imagination do the rest."

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