CAPE ELIZABETH – When Cape Elizabeth library director Jay Scherma describes the building he’s overseen for the past 15 years, it’s not surprising that he’d use a literary allusion.

“It’s like Topsy says in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,'” he quotes, “‘I just growed.'”

And grow it has, in almost hodge-podge fashion. The Thomas Memorial Library is actually an amalgamation of five separate buildings, two of which, built in the mid-19th century, began life as one-room schoolhouses. Those two buildings were moved onto the site and linked to another former schoolhouse – built in 1910, expanded just after World War II, and later repositioned on the lot – with an addition and connector building in 1986.

Combined, the five buildings have 15,000 square feet of space, but only 13,500 is what Sherma terms “usable,” due to the maze-like structure of the facility. “Even at that, for our needs, the building is about 6,000 square feet too small,” he said.

Now plans for a new library, fermenting since 2007, have been uncorked.

On Thursday, representatives from Casaccio Architects, of Havertown, Pa., were in town to unveil their latest renderings.

“I think this is the most exciting building our firm has done in its 60 years,” said architect Lee Casaccio, who described his concept drawing, with its distinctive, asymmetrical “reverse-gable” elevation and towering glass cupola, as “a lighthouse of knowledge.”

The design, he said, was inspired by a tour he took of Cape Elizabeth properties with Sherma and Town Manager Michael McGovern.

“We want this to be a landmark building in Cape Elizabeth for the next 100 years,” said Casaccio. “We tried to make it timeless, the way a lot of your building here already are, in my opinion.”

Casaccio will return with more drawings in late August. Before then, however, some of the heaviest lifting yet will occur on the project.

On Thursday, July 28, the library advisory committee will vet the resumes of six applicants who recently applied for the job of fundraising consultant. Scherma says the name of the favored candidate will be sent to the Town Council for approval by “early September, at the latest.”

But why spend money to have someone research how much money you can raise? Easy answer, says McGovern.

“There’s no one who goes into a major fundraising effort without a fundraising capacity study,” he said. “That tells you how much can be realized but also identifies some individuals and agencies that may be willing to participate.”

Getting a handle on fundraising is particularly important. The council has set aside $100,000 for up-front work, such as Casaccio’s concept drawings, but the study will set the bar on what town officials can expect to raise in donations and, by extension, what they’ll have to raise via taxation.

Although Scherma said the new library could end up costing $8 million, McGovern was more circumspect, saying simply, “We don’t know yet” when asked to ballpark a price tag.

The idea to build a new library started in 2007, when a study committee appointed by the Town Council commissioned a report by Himmel & Wilson Library Consultants, of Milton, Wis., which outlined a list of 102 deficiencies in the buildings.

Problems include many specific to libraries – shelves have to be spaced far apart in the older section, which houses the children’s wing, because the floor will no longer handle the load, while they are too close to meet ADA standards in the newer “Pond Cove” wing, due to cramped quarters. There also are issues with moisture and humidity (neither a friend to books), poor ventilation and lack of facilities to run the wiring required of modern libraries in the computer age.

“Another of the gross inadequacies is that the heating plant and control systems are just completely obsolete,” said Scherma. “Plus, nothing here was designed with any concept of modern plumbing involved.”

The Himmel & Wilson report essentially concluded that the cost of renovating the existing buildings is too great, and, nostalgia aside, the historical significance of the component pieces too low, to justify saving the structure.

Instead, the plan is to raze the library and put up an entirely new building, 104 feet wide by 208 feet long, in a single story 40 feet high. Casaccio said construction would last at least a year. It’ll take eight months just to refine the proposal into an actual blueprint, once the project gets the green light, he adds. Because the new library would be built in roughly the same spot as the current building – albeit shimmied slightly to the property line, to make room for 80 parking spaces – one looming question is where materials would be stored in the meantime. To that, Sherma can only shrug. Although anticipated for a long time, real planning, in a logistical sense, is just getting started.

For that reason, officials fear the library project has yet to capture the imagination of the average Cape Elizabeth resident.

“Everyone sees the deteriorating plant, they recognize the deficiencies of the building, but it’s been a slow process because of the recession,” said Town Manager Michael McGovern. “I don’t think the public has focused its consciousness on this yet, but on the council, as far as big projects go, this, I think, is at the forefront of the list.”

In recent months, Casaccio and his team have made three trips to Maine, meeting with officials from the library and town. In both the elevations and the interior space, Casaccio played off keywords he heard at those stakeholder sessions, he said, paying particular attention to those used to describe qualities the new library should have, like “ingenious, intimate, authentic, timeless and whimsical.”

But most of all, Casaccio said, his overriding concern was to give Cape Elizabeth an “adaptable” community space it could be proud of.

“A library is not just a place to store books,” he said, “it is a place where people come together.”

Scherma agrees, noting that, unlike when the library buildings were first cobbled together, “this is not a population-driven expansion project.”

Nor, he said, is it about books, entirely. Already in his time at the helm, Scherma has seen his reference stacks disappear, Google having become the knowledge base of choice. For example, Schemra stopped bothering to buy annual updates to the “Modern Authors” encyclopedia years ago.

“Without a doubt,” he said, “the Internet has had a profound impact on how libraries operate.”

So, in a world where electronic books are so prevalent even Borders cannot survive, why do people need libraries? Like the brick and mortar bookstores, has their time come and gone?

Not according to Scherma, not by a long shot.

“Although books are historically the stock and trade of libraries, they don’t define them,” said Scherma. “Libraries serve a fundamental need of humanity because, unlike the animal kingdom, people aren’t born complete, pre-programmed with instinctual behavior. We have long learning curves.

“Libraries are places society sets aside for sharing the stories that define us,” said Scherma. “They are public forums for sharing ideas. They are not virtual, so that we always know where to go with questions of meaning, or because we’re feeling isolated. It is not accidental that survivors gathered at public libraries in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to share their stories in person and via email. We see a similar effect after storms knock out the power in Cape.

“One of the negative effects of being so cramped and not having quality meeting and gathering spaces for our patrons is that, too often we functions like a kind of fast-food joint where people order their material on line and drop by to pick it up on their way home without ever stopping to browse or chat with others. That,” said Scherma, “is only a fraction of what a library can offer.”

One other thing it can offer, says Casaccio, is connection.

“We’re not going to be here in the next 100 years,” he said, “but our architecture will be. That’s why I say architecture is a language – it’s how one generation talks to another.”

An artist’s rendering of the new Cape Elizabeth library,
described by Pennsylvania architect Lee Casaccio as “a lighthouse
of knowledge.”  (Courtesy image)

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