Main Library Celebrates $27M Renovation and Expansion
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Donna Jenkins was a regular patron of the main branch of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County when she was in grade school some 70 years ago.
She recalls walking to Main Library regularly with her friends after finishing classes at the old St. Columba grade school downtown. “I remember bringing a big stack of books home,” she said.
Saturday afternoon, Jenkins, with her daughter, Susan Beede, got a look at the newly reopened Main Library.
“It’s amazing. Isn’t it beautiful?” she said.
Jenkins and Beede were among the hundreds of visitors from around the Mahoning Valley – and in some cases considerably further away – who attended the celebration of Main Library’s recently completed $27 million renovation.
The library broke ground in August 2020 on the long-contemplated project, which involved construction of a 6,000-square-foot addition, new landscaping and the renovation of the entire existing building, including restoration of the grand staircase entrance facing Fifth Avenue.
That restored entrance features what Aimee Fifarek, PLYMC executive director and CEO, told those attending the reopening ceremony is her favorite part of the project: the new lampposts, “symbolizing the light of knowledge,” and the inscription, “For the People,” above the newly installed bronze doors.
“That’s why we’re all here. That’s why the library exists – for the people,” she said.
Another historical aspect of the project was the return of the Grand Reading Room’s art glass ceiling and Parthenon frieze “to their former glory,” she remarked.
“We have brought the historical parts of the library back to life – many of which, over the years, were altered or removed altogether,” she said in brief remarks before the ribbon-cutting ceremony reopening the space to the public.
“But this new chapter of Main Library isn’t only about honoring the past. It is also about imagining the possibilities of the future,” she said. The new addition features a meeting space with state-of-the-art technology and the new culinary literacy center that “will allow us to honor and do our part to pass on all of the wonderful food traditions of the Mahoning Valley,” Fifarek said.
Other features of the renovation included creation of a makerspace with a recording studio, and a family engagement area with expanded children’s area and a dedicated teen space, along with meeting spaces of various sizes.
“It’s an absolutely magnificent renovation,” Carole Weimer, chairwoman of the library’s board of trustees, said following the ceremony and ribbon cutting.
As a child, Weimer more frequently patronized the old North Side branch on Belmont Avenue but utilized Main Library more in high school because it had greater resources for research projects, she said.
“There were always the naysayers who thought we maybe ought to move Main Library out of town into one of the suburbs,” she added. “We serve a great need here. If you come here during the week, you’ll see lots of people who live in this neighborhood that don’t have internet and they use the computers. It’s a safe haven for so many people and a place they can calmly learn and enrich their lives.”
Another trustee, Alexa Sweeney Blackann, attended the celebration with her husband and four children, who range in age from 6 to 14.
“We affectionately call this one ‘the mothership’ because it is the largest, most important library in the network. It also has different resources than any of the other libraries,” Blackann said.
Blackann and her family tend to use Main Library the most because of its central location, with its proximity to local assets such as Youngstown State University and Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology.
“If you’re down here for a while. You can really make a day of it by accessing the other resources available in downtown Youngstown,” she said.
According to Fifarek, some 40 local and regional firms worked on the project, as well as nearly 100 local trades people, many of whom live in the area.
The project architect principal with Bostwick Design Partnership, Cleveland, which collaborated with RFB Colab, Youngstown, on the historic preservation aspects of the project. AM Higley Co. in Cleveland and Dawn Inc. in Warren served as construction manager.
“The library and Aimee and her team have been absolute visionaries in allowing this to happen the way it did. They really deserve the bulk of the credit for setting this in motion and making something like this happen for the city of Youngstown’s residents,” said Rick Ortmeyer, Bostwick Design Partnership principal.
“There’s a lot of projects that get the benefit of doing a historic renovation and making a beautiful recreation of what was into something new and there’s other projects that get the chance to add on and bring something new to a community,” he remarked. “And there’s others that sort of create great outdoor spaces. But it’s a rare opportunity that all three of these things can happen at once.”
Ortmeyer was among several members of the construction and design teams who were on hand for the unveiling.
Julia Hagen, interior designer with Bostwick, described the building’s transformation as “amazing.” She attended Saturday’s event with her three children, who enjoyed the play area.
“I’m very excited, very proud,” she remarked. “I just really enjoyed working on this project.”
Paul Santiago, site superintendent with AM Higley, acknowledged doing the project while the library remained in operation during most of the construction was “a task.” Other challenges the project faced included the COVID-19 pandemic, long lead times and pricing of materials, and having to procure replacement materials when products weren’t available.
“But we managed to get through the challenges were able to give them a beautiful final product,” he said.
“I’m thrilled with how it turned out,” said Paul Hagman, historic preservation architect and owner of RFB Colab. It “exceeded expectations,” both his own and those of the people attending the open house, based on what he heard.
One of the moments Hagman recalled was the discovery that the skylight glass had just been painted over as part of a 1950s modernization.
“All of the historic reference photos that we were only in black and white, so we didn’t know the true colors of the skylight until we were able to get up there and scrape the paint away,” he said. “So that was a pretty special moment, and the end result is beautiful.”
Hagman agreed with Fifarek about the significance of restoring the inscription above the Wick Avenue entrance. “That is such an important statement to put out there to the community, that everybody is welcome,” he said.
Library patrons similarly were pleased with what they saw. As of mid-afternoon, at least 500 individuals and families had attended, not including staff and trustees, said Maggie Henderson, PLYMC strategic communications officer.
Tom Milligan of Boardman was checking out the culinary literacy center, a resource he is particularly interested in utilizing because the library will be offering cooking classes.
“I’m not too good in the kitchen so this would be a welcome addition to me,” he remarked. He also said Main Library was “long overdue” for renovation.
“All of the other branch libraries are so wonderful,” he said. “They’re beautiful and there’s no reason why this one shouldn’t be the same caliber as those, mostly for the people in Youngstown to be able to use this.” I think it’s awesome.”
Carol McCoy, who regularly uses the Poland branch library as well as the Michael Kusalaba branch on the West Side, described the renovated building as “amazing.” She attended the open house with her husband, Bob.
“I do some down here for programs and for some of their crafting, and when I’m in the area and just want to get some books here,” she said. She looks forward to using the branch more, especially the equipment in the makerspace.
Courtney and Stephen Poullas, who live in the Handel’s Neighborhood on the city’s South Side, brought their two children – Gracie, 8, and Michael, 4 — to the event. They regularly use the Newport branch, which is within walking distance, two to four times per week to attend programs and borrow books and movies, Courtney Poullas said.
They come to Main probably monthly. Saturday they were in the family engagement space, which opened to the public last August.
“The kids love it. It’s great for the community,” Courtney Poullas said.
Also in the family engagement area was Mackenzie Ashok of Columbus, who had her 3-year-old daughter and 10-year-old nephew. Originally from Sebring, she was in town visiting a friend who works at the library.
“We go to all the different libraries in Columbus,” she said. “Compared to a lot of other libraries, there’s so much here. The kids are really enjoying themselves.”
Fifarek noted that renovating Main Library was an early priority for her after she arrived in 2018.
“I know how long this community has been waiting for this project to be done. It was in the strategic plan when I arrived here,” she said. “So it was a priority for me to start out, and I’m so pleased to say that despite the pandemic, supply chain issues and al of the changes and substitutions that we’ve had throughout the last couple of years we’ve been able to see this day happen.”
Additionally, she acknowledged that one of her favorite spaces in the newly renovated building is the cultural literacy center, which also will provide the opportunity for people to come together to learn about good nutrition.
It also will serve as a resource to help the community to digitize and preserve that aspect of local history so those culinary traditions can be passed on.
“I am someone who loves food. I love eating, I love learning about food, I love cooking,” she said. “I felt like I was coming to a community of like-minded people when I came to Mahoning County because of the way we celebrate food traditions.”
Pictured at top: Aimee Fifarek, PLYMC executive director and CEO, speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday.
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