Sledgehammers away! Providence library launches major renovation


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — After about four years of planning, local and state leaders descended on the Providence Public Library Thursday morning with the bash of a sledgehammer.

Indeed, to mark the carving out and rebuilding of the historic building’s interior, dignitaries such as Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, state treasurer Seth Magaziner, and library directors took turns with the gleaming silver tool, hitting into a pillar and breaking up the drywall – a “wall-breaking” instead of the frequent “ground-breaking” with shovels and dirt that frequently launches major public building projects.

It’s being touted as the largest library renovation ever in the state of Rhode Island. Approximately 83,000 square feet will be rebuilt, including the library’s so-called 1950’s wing, the auditorium, and special collection areas.

The library underwent a renovation in 2013 but the 65-year-old Empire Street and “stacks” book storage buildings need some major safety systems upgrades, from fire alarm and fire protection equipment to advanced heating and cooling equipment. Some areas, primarily the auditorium, also need to be more accessible to wheelchairs.

With an overall cost of $25 million, the rebuilding will take 12 to 18 months. Areas being renovated will be closed off while the library continues limited operations. Some of the circulating collection – including books – will have restricted access, and some services are being moved to temporary locations.

But once it’s all done, there will be more classrooms, larger areas for public computers and more flexible space, including a 300-person conference center, new spaces dedicated to children and teens, and a new café space.

Part of the funding came from the Rhode Island Office of Library and Information Services ($8.8 million), the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts ($200,000), other private donors, and a public capital campaign.

“Public libraries, when done right, are one of those things that can help hold our society together… so that people can come to a place and have shared experiences and shared knowledge,” Magaziner said.

“We need to counteract those forces that pull us apart with the forces and institutions that bring us together, and that’s what this library is doing,” Elorza said.

Once kudos and thanks were handed out and excitement built, it was time to get bashing. Attention turned to a pillar next to the old South Reading Room and the gleaming sledgehammer.

A typical sledgehammer can weigh up to 20 pounds – the weight of a car tire – compacted into a steel head about the size of a pound of butter.

Magaziner, who had some height on his side, scored one of a few hits about six feet up the pillar’s wall. Others, including Elorza and former Providence mayor, now U.S. Congressman David Cicilline, collected holes at about waist-height, finally sending an irregular panel inward after a set of four holes were torn in by the impact.

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