"When they pulled up the rug," Deborah Marchand says, "they found
We're admiring a glorious terrazzo floor under the rotunda of the Haddonfield Public Library, where a $2.2 million, 15-month restoration, renovation, and repurposing project is nearly complete.
The goal, library board president Marchand adds, was "to take what had been a fairly inflexible space and make it more flexible and open and welcoming."
Haddonfield has done all that and then some: A sneak peek last week left me impressed by how seamlessly the old has been freshened up and blended with the new inside the Monticello-esque landmark at Tanner Street and Haddon Avenue.
"We didn't want to do something that would be good for only five years," says borough administrator Sharon McCullough, noting that the discussion and planning process began the better part of a decade ago.
"We wanted to do something that would last."
The results include the construction of the library's first elevator, as well as other modifications that have made this essential public facility fully accessible to everyone for the first time since it opened in 1917. (As an organization, the library dates to 1803.)
Throughout the revitalized interior of the venerable edifice, which includes two later additions, the use of whiteboards, WiFi, flat screens, and other technologies and compact devices has freed up room, and rooms.
From the undersea-themed basement children's area to the redesigned stacks on the upper level (now with space for tutoring sessions), partitions have been removed, bookshelves reconfigured - "we had towers and tunnels of them," Marchand recalls - and bulky furniture and equipment replaced.
And a bounty of light flows unencumbered through windows that had long been obscured.
"We can reveal all this beautiful space and give it back to the community," says Eric Zino, the library's newly appointed director.
Says project manager Sharon Parker Kearney: "Plaster was falling down, and one fireplace literally had shelving in front of it. I hate to use this term, but some things had been junked up."
The rediscovery and restoration of architectural features such as floors and fireplaces is great news, of course.
But the deeper and arguably better story here is the facility's evolution of function and purpose, as exemplified by the new layouts, the millennial-friendly amenities, and the comfy furniture.
What was traditionally a "quiet, please" place useful primarily for solitary readers - fear not, we will still count - now must also serve patrons with far different needs and expectations.
Yes, things have changed rather a lot since I devoured the science-fiction collection volume by fantastic volume at the North Adams, Mass., public library in the 1960s. And technology is not the only reason.
"I grew up thinking you come into a library and find out what you are allowed to do," Zino says.
"Now we try to make sure we accommodate what people want to do - to do research, to have conversations, to interact with content, and create with the content."
Thus the room that long held the teen collection is now called the teen "commons" and features not only a 55-inch flat screen (great for displaying freshly mashed-up video projects) but also a "collaborative table" for ensemble creativity.
And by the way, the teen commons will be open until 3 p.m. for use by us non-teenagers as well.
Elsewhere, as the hosts of my tour explain, folks can rely on the library for all sorts of reasons. They may need to use a database, or a restroom; peruse the internet, or a rare volume about New Jersey history; study for a bar exam; or meet up with a friend.
"This is a walking town, and as citizens make their rounds, a certain number of them pop in here," Zino says. "They migrated with us to the temporary annex on Kings Highway."
The migration will be over soon. Books and other items - the collection has 60,000 pieces - will be moved back to Haddon and Tanner from the annex, and from remote storage.
A soft opening is expected in late July or early August, with a grand reopening set for Sept. 17.
That's good news, from the terrazzo to the top of the rotunda, and beyond.
Well done, Haddonfield.