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Community Bound: West Falmouth Library

West Falmouth Library reading room

In the restored reading room, which is open to the community room, book stacks are now on casters, allowing the library to accommodate more people for their speaker and music events.

West Falmouth Library strengthens its ties to community, and history, as it begins its next chapter

When five Quaker women formed the Young People’s Union—which would become the West Falmouth Library Association—in the mid-1870s, could they have known just how enduring an institution they created? As these women amassed numerous books and partook in various literary programs together, they in turn created a shared sense of community, one that has remained the heartbeat of the West Falmouth Library.

“It’s really the center of the community, and people feel that they belong here and it belongs to the community,” says Lois Hiller, director of West Falmouth Library. It was with community in mind that, in 2012, the library decided to make some much-needed updates to its 1896 building on West Falmouth Highway. Over the next five years, working with Brown Lindquist Fenuccio & Raber Architects (BLFR) and contractor Dellbrook | JKS, the West Falmouth Library’s Building Committee set out to create a fully accessible, modern-day facility, all while restoring the historic integrity of the library.

Prior to the project, there was no easy way for individuals with physical limitations to access the building. The main entrance consists of stairs, so to enter the building otherwise and access the main and lower levels meant using a handicap lift. “But it was pretty intimidating to use,” says Oliver Egleston, co-chair of the Building Committee. Additionally, a small children’s room on the lower level was only accessible via a steep and narrow staircase, and there was no accessible bathroom on the main level, only on the lower level.

To accommodate needed accessibility features, and provide more space for the library’s operations, BLFR designed a 2,000-square-foot addition. The ground level of the new addition, accessible from the new parking lot, features an elevator and a wide stairway up to the main level, two bathrooms, a climate-controlled archive room (with indexed records dating back to the 1600s), a bookshelf dedicated to the library’s ongoing book sale (now in it’s 30th year), and a multi-use room, with a refrigerator and sink, intended for community group gatherings and children’s programs. On the main level, the addition includes a quiet reading room, two more bathrooms and space for archival displays.

West Falmouth Library

West Falmouth Library

An existing addition on the building from 1972—which was renovated to include an expanded children’s area on the main level, complete with windows original to the 1896 building—proved to be beneficial to the design team. “Our addition is connected to the ’70s wing, so we weren’t making a hard connection between the new work and the original library,” says Rick Fenuccio, president of BLFR. “That helped visually pull the new addition away a bit from the original building so that it didn’t start to overwhelm it.”

But constructing the new addition did present a few uphill battles, so to speak. “The big challenge, because we were basically building into a fairly steep hill, in order to come out the back corner of the building and connect to the parking lot, it required really excavating into the hill and creating a significant size retaining wall into the hill,” says Fenuccio. “We had to deal with the drainage and keeping water from wanting to cascade down the hill and into the building.” There was also the limited footprint to contend with. “Because of where the building is,” Fenuccio explains, “we had to fit the addition, a new septic system and infrastructure, improve pathways and landscaping—all of this within a relatively small envelope from the right side of the building toward the parking area.”

“Overall the project went seamlessly,” notes Chris Conway, senior vice president of operations for Dellbrook | JKS. “We were able to incorporate the new design into the existing structure quite well, so much so that those driving by would have a difficult time distinguishing between the two.”

Careful consideration and great detail went into tying the original library building and the new addition together. Maria Raber, project manager for BLFR, explains that the addition is designed to complement the original historic structure. The facing around the lower level of the addition is a granite veneer—similar to the Falmouth pink granite used as part of JFK’s gravesite—with the same tone as the original building’s rubble stone foundation. The same clapboard siding is used on both exteriors, painted to match the original color of the library, a Victorian shade of purple-gray. Historic paint testing needed to be done to determine this color, as the library had been repainted differently in the years since 1896.

Inside the original part of the library—consisting of the connected community room and main reading room, framed by distinct wood trim and wainscoting—Raber says the space simply “needed some love.” All cracked plaster was repaired, and the original maple floors were refinished. Existing diamond-pattern windows and eyebrow dormers were restored, along with their sashes. The historic medallions in the ceiling were also restored and painted in their original bronze color. The entire interior was repainted to match the original warm hues—the ceiling in ochre and the walls in a Victorian-era green.

The quiet reading room at West Falmouth Library

The quiet reading room at West Falmouth Library

On the north side of the library, the immaculately landscaped yard and gardens now serve as event space, with the addition of a deck and terrace. An accessible walkway connects the building to the terrace, allowing everyone to enjoy the outdoor concerts, or simply the serene setting on a pleasant day.

“We take a lot of pride in these kinds of projects—historic buildings, town centers, that you’re kind of resurrecting and bringing back to their former glory,” says Fenuccio. “It definitely helped that there was so much support from the Building Committee and the town to do what we needed to do,” adds Raber. “The effort they put into restoring this building is pretty amazing.”

In August, the West Falmouth Library announced that it surpassed its $2.9 million capital campaign goal for the renovation/restoration project, completed last June. Altogether, the library received 1,088 donations, from community members, businesses and foundations, as well as the Falmouth Community Preservation Fund and the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund. Carlyn Ellms, chair of the capital campaign and former president of the West Falmouth Library Board of Directors, says that the project has already had an immense impact on the library. “It increased our meeting space, increased our event space—we have lots of speakers and music,” she says. “We now can have more people attending events, and we can rent spaces now as well, so it’s earned income for us.”

Further, Ellms recalls a significant moment just days after the library reopened. “This wonderful woman came in—a little slow in walking—and she came right up to the desk and said, ‘I haven’t been here in four years because I couldn’t go up the stairs or use the lift. And now I’ll be back every week. You all did a good job.’ That was the big vote of confidence for us—that’s exactly what we wanted. We all stood there and had tears in our eyes.”

Oliver Egleston, who grew up visiting the West Falmouth Library, says a question that came up often during the project was why, in an age of electronic books, were they putting such effort into a library? “I think it’s easy to overlook the role of libraries as community centers,” he says, “because most people think of libraries as places for books, which of course they are, but they are more than that.”

“We hope this project continues to prove that libraries are a critical component of our town fabric,” says Fenuccio, “and we hope that the building continues to serve that function and does it well for many years to come.”

West Falmouth Library  575 West Falmouth Highway



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