Mystery donor's $15 million library challenge

The planned expansion of the Central Library got a shot in the arm from an anonymous benefactor. But there's a catch.

The Free Library of Philadelphia yesterday announced that it had received an anonymous $15 million challenge grant toward refurbishment and expansion of the Central Library on Logan Square, a multipart project with a cost estimated at $175 million.

The gift, from a private individual, requires each dollar to be matched from other sources, library officials said.

Excluding the matching grant, officials said, the library has raised $70.3 million for the project, including $30 million from the city and $9.5 million from the state. Private donors include the Annenberg Foundation ($5 million) and William Penn Foundation ($4 million).

The grant is "by far" the largest private gift during the library's campaign, and marks a new phase in the effort, said Linda Johnson, chief executive of the Free Library Foundation, the library's fund-raising arm.

"We are here to take the campaign to the community," Johnson said at a press event at the library.

William R. Sasso, chairman of the foundation's board of directors, read a statement from the donor that said: "Our desire is to help expand the Central Library and revitalize the heart of the library system."

The donor added that when construction is complete, "the renewed Central Library will be a center where all segments of the community come together to access information and exchange ideas in a dynamic environment."

The major portion of the project is a 160,000-square-foot expansion of the main building. Designed by Moshe Safdie, the addition would balloon out to the north, between 19th and 20th Streets, with a new children's library, an auditorium, a teen center and a cafe in the light-filled space.

In addition, the library's signature 1927 Beaux Arts building will be substantially refurbished.

Work on a new roof is expected to begin this summer. The main entrance lobby has already been refurbished.

Officials said they hoped to break ground on the Safdie addition next year, but other parts of the project are moving forward regardless.

"We don't have to wait," Johnson said.

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