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Vol. LXIII, No. 6
 
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
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The Debate Continues as Seminary Unveils Latest Plans for Speer Library

Dilshanie Perera

The Borough’s Historic Preservation Review Committee (HPRC) met last Wednesday to review the latest developments in the case of Speer Library, though a formal, final application has not yet been made.

The Princeton Theological Seminary has proposed to demolish the existing library and build a new structure in its place. Part of the provisional design includes a high-density book box, which will be windowless and allow for the storage of 1.5 million texts.

Opposition to the development was expressed on two fronts. Some community members were concerned about razing a structure situated in the historic Mercer Hill district, while others expressed disapproval of the proposed design.

According to the Borough Code, in order for the Seminary to be allowed to tear down and build in the historic neighborhood, it must demonstrate adequate hardship.

In explaining why a new library is necessary for the operation of the institution, Seminary President Iain Torrance characterized the library as “a living part of our mission and our project” as well as “a living part of this town and this community.”

“Dr. Ronald White, one of the distinguished historians of Lincoln, said that it was in the Seminary’s archive that he first had an inkling about how Abe Lincoln’s mind works. That is the kind of resource we are offering,” Mr. Torrance remarked.

Architect David Fixler of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott noted that they had considered renovating the existing library, but that it would prove more costly than razing and rebuilding, and that the current capacity of Speer would not be adequate to house the the desired capacity of two million books.

Regarding the proposed book box, Mr. Fixler noted that they considered burying it underground, but that the groundwater at the site makes it nearly impossible. The plans that were presented at the meeting depicted the book box as part of the library, but extending 15 feet below grade.

Seminary Librarian Stephen Crocco underscored that rather than “weeding our collection, like other libraries do,” the institution wants to expand its own archive. “We want to document all the crazy opinions and the wrong-headed ideas of the times,” he joked.

The regular rate of acquisition is 20,000 books per year, Mr. Crocco reported, noting that they currently “have libraries interested in giving us 300,000 books,” which could be housed in the new library.

President of the Mercer Hill Historic District Association Rob Robertson requested more information regarding renovation costs, while suggesting that the Seminary present an overall master plan to the community so that everyone could see its vision for the campus over time.

Resident Wendy Benchley expressed concerns about a tear-down of Speer Library as setting a precedent for other buildings in the area. Urging the historic preservation committee to weigh the specific reasons for hardship, she said that any remaining questions would have to be answered fully prior to Planning Board action.

Users of the library, including scholars and professors who live in the neighborhood, noted that Speer is not the ideal space in which to conduct research. Bob McLennan said that he had “used this library for 42 years” and that he does not find it “a commodious place.”

Presenting revised schematic plans for the new library, Mr. Fixler spoke of the architectural style of the neighborhood as one of “incredible variety.” The building that they have proposed fits in with the “quirkiness, and also the material palate, the rhythms, to be sure we are looking at the neighborhood in a holistic fashion,” he said.

The plan did not meet immediate approval from the public. Ms. Benchley said that “this building seems to be designed trying to pick up an element here and there around the neighborhood,” adding that “if they prove hardship, we might be better off doing something that has a beautiful, completely different look.”

Historic Preservation Review Committee member Regan Tuder agreed that “we want something great in the neighborhood,” and that she is “very excited about what may be put up there.”

The Committee will respond to the materials submitted by the Seminary in a formal document.

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