Volume 75, Number 35 | January 18 - 24, 200

Quinn is exploring shifting library renovation funds

By Albert Amateau

Villager file photo

The Jefferson Market Library

Just to be sure about what Villagers want for the Jefferson Market Library restoration, City Councilmember Christine Quinn last week sent a mailing to 1,200 of her constituents seeking their input.

But if public meetings on the issue — the latest held by Village Independent Democrats on Thurs. Jan. 12 — are any indication, the consensus will be predictable: Fix the exterior first and remove the sidewalk bridge that has obscured the Victorian Gothic architectural gem for more than two years.

In addition, most of the people who attended the V.I.D. forum at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery Church agreed that making the entrance, bathrooms and elevators in the building fully compliant with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act was a top priority.

Nevertheless, the uncertainties remain about the project, which was first budgeted 11 years ago when State Senator Tom Duane was Quinn’s City Council predecessor.

Kate Seely-Kirk, Quinn’s legislative aide, told the Jan. 12 meeting that Quinn was still exploring whether any of the $2.1 million in the original City Council appropriation for the library’s interior renovation could be shifted to fixing the exterior of the 1877 landmark. “We do know that if we are able to switch funds, about $184,000 would not be available because it has been spent in preliminary design work on the interior project,” Seely-Kirk said.

The letter that Quinn sent to Villagers invites replies to the question: “Is it more important to maintain funding for the planned interior renovations, or to switch the funding to the exterior renovations?” The letter asks for responses to be sent to Quinn’s district office at 224 W. 30th St., #1206, 10001 by Feb. 12. Questions may be e-mailed to kate.seely-kirk@council.nyc.ny.us.

The scaffolding along the side of the library was erected nearly three years ago to protect pedestrians from fragments of limestone falling from the decorative trim and gargoyles. It is believed that the limestone details on the facade are deteriorating, but the brickwork is in good shape and there are no structural problems.

However, a complete reassessment of the facade would have to be done if the exterior project takes precedence. Preliminary estimates of the exterior renovation costs range from $2.5 million to $3 million. Seely-Kirk said the question of switching funds would be answered “soon” but she was not prepared to say exactly when.

“Do we really have to chose between the inside and the outside?” asked Keen Berger, Village Democratic district co-leader, adding, “The goal should be to do both.”

Bonnie Birman, assistant director of branch libraries for the New York Public Library, told the forum that plans for a teen section in the basement was nothing like a lounge that Villagers have feared would bring music, videos and noise to the library. Birman said it would be a space with books and computers designated for young adults and available to all users.

The interior renovation would increase the service space for library patrons and reduce “back office” space used only by staff. “We would not give up a single feather that we have now. We want to make the space more useable,” she said.

The courthouse, designed by Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux, who collaborated with Frederick Law Olmstead on the Central Park design, was erected on the site of the Jefferson Market where a 100-foot-tall wooden fire watchtower was also located. The courthouse, completed in 1877, includes a 100-foot tower where the original fire bell remains to this day.

A lockup for defendants was built on the south side but was demolished in 1929 to make way for the Women’s House of Detention, which itself was demolished in 1973 and replaced by the Jefferson Market Garden.

The building ceased being used as a court by 1945. It housed other city agencies for a few more years but then fell vacant for nearly a decade. A decision to demolish it in 1958 was defeated by Village advocates including Margo Gayle, the late Philip Wittenberg and the poet E.E. Cummings, who lived on Patchin Pl. in the shadow of the tower.

In 1961, Mayor Robert Wagner Jr. agreed to convert the building into a library and the project was executed in 1966 to a design by Giorgio Cavaglieri. It opened as a library in 1967.

Speaking at the V.I.D. meeting, Carol Feinman, president of the Federation to Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront and Great Port, said, “We want it restored to the condition it was in during the 1880s when a group of architects described it as the most beautiful building in America.”

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