AUBURN — As Eckhart Public Library Director Janelle Graber strolls through the main library building, closed since a July 2017 fire, a couple dozen workers are working busily on its renovation and remodeling.
“None of us anticipated how long this process would take,” Graber said, about the recovery, now stretching 27 months. “We’re really working hard to get open by the close of 2019.”
The arson fire melted and charred much of the building’s interior, while leaving its exterior largely undamaged.
In the wake of the devastation, the library’s board of trustees decided to improve the building instead of merely restoring the fire damage.
“The fire was devastating, but the board was driven to make the improvements, many of which were identified in our strategic plan from community input,” Graber said.
“It would have been so easy to make a decision to put it back exactly as it was. It wouldn’t have served the community for the future.”
A report recommending at least $1 million in upgrades to the building had been delivered to the board only two days before the fire.
Making those improvements has elongated the fire-recovery process, not to mention a lengthy inventory for insurance claims and a million-dollar cleanup before reconstruction could begin.
This week, the end of the journey seemed to be coming into focus. Construction crews were swarming both inside and outside the structure on South Jackson Street.
Graber pointed out the recently painted trim on the library’s historic side, which opened in 1911 as a gift to the community from philanthropist Charles Eckhart.
“We’re taking it back to the 1910 color, based on paint analysis from a little spot” that was found under the eaves, revealing a rich brown hue, compared to the previous rose-tinted shade of brown.
“The community is going to be surprised with the change in color,” Graber said. “It really makes the windows stand out, and the beautiful architecture of the building.”
Next will come new roofing tiles, replacing the original tiles laid in 1910. The new clay tiles will be made by Ludowici of New Lexington, Ohio, the 130-year-old company that produced the originals.
“Maintaining the historical integrity of the building is important, as a community treasure,” Graber said.
Inside, the original ceiling woodwork has been restored on the historic east side of the library.
“It was bubbled all over” from the fire’s heat, Graber said, “and they had to sand it by hand.”
Workers were installing frames to hold reproductions of six stained-glass windows that were destroyed by the fire. Originally on the west exterior wall, since the building’s mid-1990s expansion they had hung over the passageway from the original library to the new addition.
Ceilings have been raised on the modern side of the library, and restrooms have been installed on the main floor for the first time, Graber said.
A major change in the layout of the upper floor will place a service desk in the landing at the top of the stairway. Upstairs restrooms have been moved, and new windows expand the view of the Close Community Room from the service desk. The Close Community Room also will have a listening station for CDs and vinyl records.
This week, the view from the community room’s west-facing picture windows showed crews laying brick pavers in two shades — red and buff — in decorative patterns on a plaza surrounding the library park’s 1914 cast-iron fountain.
The basin for the fountain will be larger than before, with decorative edging.
“It really showcases the fountain,” Graber said.
A strong wi-fi signal and ample seating will be available in the park around the fountain.
“We treat that like an outdoor reading room and programming space,” Graber said.
Changes in library use inspired the upgrades inside the building.
“People are staying longer at libraries. We’ve made spaces that people can spend more time for reading and recreation,” Graber said.
Graber has received numerous worried inquiries about the condition of the Secret Garden room in the children’s department on the lower level
“It’s in incredibly good shape,” Graber said about the Secret Garden. Next door to the garden room, a space on the east side of the lower level has been remodeled to house children’s programming.
“There’s a lot of improvements the public will benefit from, but will never see,” Graber said. They include a heated sidewalk at the entrance and new, indoor controls for the fountain that will improve its operation.
“My hope is that the community enjoys and is really pleased with the final results — and, most importantly, that they come and use the library,” when it reopens, Graber said.
“That’s when we get back to our real work … being the best library we can be and serving our community.”