Van Buren Library
@story MARLA CANTRELL
@images CATHERINE FREDERICK
Mayor Bob Freeman stands inside the brand new Van Buren Library and smiles. “It’s like going from darkness to light,” he says, looking out across the building, its ceiling so far above you have to crane your neck to see it.
The grand opening for the 19,000 square foot building will be Febraury 13 at 2:00 p.m. at the Main Street and 15th Street location. Freeman is anxious to have the library open; it’s taken far longer than anyone expected. In fact, the origins of this shining building go all the way back to 2005 when voters approved a half-cent sales tax to fund the project.
The tax, which paid for the $3.4 million project, has long since been retired. When the building opens there will be no mortgage, no unpaid bills, it’s all bought and paid for.
As Freeman walks down the now empty rows of shelving, where movers will soon unpack the 62,000 books that make up the collection, he considers the marathon from start to finish. “I cried the day it caught fire in September of 2008,” Freeman says. He points to the row of cottage-like houses visible through the wide expanse of glass. “I was standing right over there,” he says, “watching the firemen work. It was 5:30 in the morning. I had tears coming down then, because I had a feeling it was going to be bad, not just because of the fire. There had been some indications of trouble.”
The foreboding had merit. The building, then eighty-five percent complete, would soon stand empty. Not a single construction worker on site, not one carpenter inside. It wasn’t the fire, started by spontaneous combustion, that caused the epic delay. That was just the first domino to fall.
The following January, the general contractor went out of business, leaving several sub-contractors unpaid. In the meantime, negotiations with the insurance company over the fire damage were already underway. The wrangling took more than a year.
When that was finally resolved, the debate with the insurance company continued over financing the remaining fifteen percent of new construction. The details were finally hammered out last year, and construction resumed.
With the library now on the brink of opening, Freeman can finally breathe. “There were times when it was first being built,” he says, “when I couldn’t wait to see it as I drove by. Later, there were days when I turned my head. ..Now, I can finally say it’s water under the bridge, and I’m not swimming in that water. This is too much of a feel-good story to do that.”
Van Buren Library Director Danalene Porter agrees. She was with the mayor that September morning, the blaze lighting the sky, fire trucks screaming down Main Street. Now, as she walks into the topnotch building and sees the new rockers for the porch where patrons will be able to sit with a good book, she tears up. “I hadn’t seen the rockers yet,” she explains. “I get a little emotional. It’s so great to see all this,” she says, pointing across the space where red, and yellow and blue floors shine in the kids’ room. We can’t wait for the public to see this. To see how far we’ve come.”
Freeman is waiting for the same thing. “That will be the day,” he says. “It’s going to be a relief to say, here it is. It will be a great feeling to see the community’s reaction. We’ve been watching the progress and have had the little jolts of ‘feel good.’ I want to see that person who sees all this for the first time.”
“I’ll probably cry all day,” Porter says, and then reconsiders. “But maybe not. There will be so much to do.”
Already, her staff of eight is working with professional library movers, who “map” the new library out, rack up the books, shrink-wrap them, and put them where they belong. “They know where every book belongs,” Porter says. “The ‘A’ fiction authors don’t have a chance of ending up with the ‘C’ authors. It’s really a phenomenal process.”
The old library, just three blocks from the new one, is two-thirds smaller and busy nearly every second of the seventy hours a week that it’s open. “We have three people working out of our break room,” Porter says. “If you eat, you eat literally at your desk. ..Lately we’ve had close to 500 patrons come through a day. ..Right now we have one little carpeted area we use for our meeting room, story time, teen activities, crafting. Computers are right against it. It’s so tight that we have young children walking to the Easy Reads even as meetings are going on. We are so excited to have a children’s room where we’ll be able to expand programming and activities.”
Teens will also benefit. For the first time since the old library opened in the early 1970s, they’ll have their own section. Funky armchairs are already in place, a drink holder on one side, a tray table on the other to hold school work or a laptop. There is also a meeting room for non-profits to use that can hold 100, a genealogy department, study areas, and a center that will eventually have twenty-four computers – the old library has only eight for public use. There is also a high-tech self checkout for those wanting to grab a book quickly and head out the door.
The building is gorgeous thanks to the genius of MAHG Architecture in Fort Smith. Wood beams run the length of the towering ceiling, ductwork rises between them like sculpture, light jumps from every corner. Even the check-out counter near the entry stands out, with its zigzag design, and flashy red countertops is worth seeing.
Freeman sees it as part of an awakening in downtown. Chuck Fawcett Realty recently renovated an office building next to the library and set up shop there. First Baptist Church, when faced with the necessity of expanding, stayed where it was, using adjacent land, instead of moving to the fast-growing section of town near the Wal-Mart Supercenter. And soon, the historic Drennen-Scott House, which is being renovated by the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, will open to the public.
He also sees the new library as proof the residents of this town of 23,000 have their priorities straight. “A library is a sense of community, a sense of gathering, coming together. It’s a focal point, a center. ..Our community understands the importance of this place.”
Porter walks down the row of offices where built-in desks wait to be filled. Her heels click along the floor, echoing in the yet-to-be filled space. The mayor stands at the entrance, and looks up at the wall of textured glass high above him. “This is all I know about architecture,” he says pointing at the panels, each with two horizontal strips and two large rectangles of glass. “See how the lines match up? Now look at the windows,” he says, pointing to the entry where windows rise higher and higher, like the tower on a castle. “That was on purpose,” he says, and smiles again.
He is no longer the man who woke in the night worrying out the problem of the library fire, trying on solutions like a man looking for the right suit. Now Freeman is almost giddy. “I never expected it to be quite this hard,” he says, “but it been worth it. Just look at this place.”