AUBURN — Eckhart Public Library will reopen its historic landmark building with an open house from 1-5 p.m. on Sunday, March 15.

Parking for the event will be available at McKenney-Harrison Elementary School and the Auburn Presbyterian Church. The event will be sponsored by the Eckhart Library Foundation.

“The Board of Trustees of the Eckhart Public Library is thrilled to invite our patrons to return to our historic main library after its extensive and intensive restoration and renovation,” said board President Carolyn Foley. “We hope that our patrons will be as excited as we are to be a part of this significant date in the library’s 110-year history. I think that our patrons will love to see the new features that enhance the library’s accessibility and flexibility in this technological age, as well as how the library has retained its unique and beautiful historic details.”

All Eckhart Public Library campus facilities will be closed to the public during the week of March 9 in preparation for the opening.

The library at 603 S. Jackson St., built in 1910 and expanded in 1996, has been restored and renovated following an arson fire that devastated its interior and destroyed the building’s collection of books and materials.

In the overnight hours of July 2, 2017, a mortar-style firework was dropped inside through the book drop, causing an explosion and fire.

The work over the past 2 1/2 years not only repaired the extensive damage from the fire, but also renovated the library with an eye toward accessibility and other needs identified by the community through strategic planning. While the building has been closed, services continued in the library’s other buildings and, for a time, a temporary location in Auburn Plaza.

Director Janelle Graber said the library’s goal immediately after the fire was to carry on serving the community to the best of its ability, despite the growing challenges it faced.

“Our greatest hope is for the community to understand what a difference their support made, during every phase of this complex project,” Graber said. “Their support continues to spur on the improvements we have achieved.”

In thanks to the community, the library’s Start with a Clean Slate program from March 15-April 15 will forgive overdue fines for any items returned during that time. To qualify, items must have been checked out at an Eckhart Public Library location.

Work on the restoration and renovation could not begin until a massive cleanup of smoke, soot, and water damage in the entire building occurred, including replacement of ductwork and plumbing. Walls were taken down to their studs, and plumbing and wiring had to be removed and replaced in the building.

A new entrance on the library’s west side, facing its historic fountain, is at ground-level, eliminating a ramp that had been identified as a hindrance to accessibility, and creating a more unified exterior. Inside the foyer, a lift takes patrons to lower and upper levels.

Reconfigured interior spaces have created more public meeting areas on all three levels and additional programming space. All meeting areas are updated with new, flexible presentation technology, and the community will enjoy expanded connectivity thanks to a bandwidth increase and a fiber upgrade to the entire library campus.

All three levels of the library now have public restrooms and staffed service desks. Additionally, each level will feature all-in-one self-service machines for patrons who prefer to check out materials at their own pace or privately.

Most recently, the library’s 110-year-old clay tile roof was replaced, using tiles sourced from the same American company that crafted the originals.

“One of the challenges we faced was the incorporation of a design to combine three distinct structures into a unified whole,” said Chuck Knox, manager of the fire recovery project. “The original 1910 Arts and Crafts main building, the 1996 addition and the 2020 entrance needed to be combined in a logical and aesthetically pleasing manner. Art in architecture has been combined with technology to create a very special place. It will be a joy for all who use the library.”

The improvements have been accomplished through For Every Citizen, the library’s capital campaign launched in 2018. Led by a $4-million gift from The James Foundation, the capital campaign is $700,000 away from reaching its $12-million goal.

The capital campaign improvements included the work on the main library, expansions to children’s and teen services, and a $4.5-million library endowment fund. The James Foundation continues to match donations.

“We have been moved by the generosity of the community, which has shown it understands the importance of restoring this historical landmark and creating an endowment for its future success,” said Vicki James, vice president of the Eckhart Library Foundation and capital campaign co-chair with Rick James. “We have more work left to do, but we are confident that people will respond in order to ensure the long-term success of the library in achieving its mission.”

In addition to the upcoming open house, a grand celebration is being planned for the weekend of June 6-7, with an exact date and time to be announced.

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