Getting ready for Moorestown Library's new home

The Moorestown Library has been in its current home since 1975.
The Moorestown Library has been in its current home since 1975. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 20, 2013

If it had been another library, or another decade, Joe Galbraith might have paid a visit to that worker with the shrieking cement cutter outside his office and called out: "Don't you know this is a library?"

But "we don't do shhhh," said Galbraith, director of the Moorestown Library, turning his gaze back from the window. "It really is a vibrant space we have here."

In truth, that big, scary-looking blade slicing the curb off North Church Street and those bulldozers rumbling near West Second Street were music to Galbraith's ears.

They are helping to create a stately, sunlit library, which, come spring, will replace the massive, quirky, leaky concrete blockhouse that has been Moorestown's library since 1975.

The current library's architect, the idealistic and pioneering Malcolm Wells, "built with function following form," Galbraith joked during a recent tour of the building.

Affable and erudite, with a white goatee and a shock of dark hair that zags approximately rightward, the jowly 58-year-old evinced amused exasperation as he pointed out the many quirks of a building where he has worked for 17 years.

Wells' design, he said, proved to be a well-intended but maddeningly inflexible "bunker" of 37,800 square feet, created when information was mostly ink on paper and the Internet, WiFi, DVDs, and smartphones were still science fiction.

Adapting the building to those technologies has proved particularly difficult, he said, because its walls and floors are of 18-inch-thick poured concrete "strengthened with double rebar."

"Which is why you get this," said Galbraith, pointing to three WiFi cables draped over an interior doorway and cellophane-taped to a wall. It was easier, he explained, than drilling through the massive floors.

Yards away, in the main reading room, he indicated a python-thick rope of bundled Ethernet cables coursing past the feet of patrons at desktop computers.

"And we have these all over the place," he said, pointing at water stains on the sloping ceiling.

Until recently, he said, the building had been "cloaked in pine trees" whose needles clogged drains, and by vines that worked their way under its "very brittle, very expensive," slate roof tiles, "which were supposed to last 100 years."

Worst hit by the roof problems has been the map room. Galbraith pushed open its door to reveal a scene of tarps, rubber buckets, and fans.

Kristen Bunnick, whose 5- and 7-year-olds were flipping through books in the children's section, said she was "looking forward to the new building and some modern amenities. This one definitely has a '70s feel."

Pamela Richards, 60, called the current library "a fine building" that she uses to socialize and go online. Despite the lack of computer privacy, the library is, she said, "my favorite place away from home."

She is ambivalent about the new building, she said, and emphatic that the existing one be put to some other use. "One of my biggest gripes about Moorestown," she said, "is that when it comes to recycling things, we talk the talk but don't walk the walk."

That's the kind of talk that would have gladdened Wells, a Cherry Hill architect influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and esteemed for his green design ethic, which included sod roofs, thick walls, rainwater cooling, and buildings partially embedded in hillsides or underground to stabilize temperatures. He died in 2009.

"He was a visionary," said Daniel Nichols, designer of Moorestown's new library and town hall. "But Wells suffered from something many architects do: They work better in one scale than another."

Wells "built beautiful houses," said Nichols, an architect with the Medford-based Ragan Design Group, "but something was lost when he moved to large-scale buildings" such as libraries, which Nichols described as "very specialized" and "complicated."

Wells also designed Moorestown's poured-concrete town hall, which caught fire in August 2007. Township officials spent years debating whether and how to replace it before settling last year on a two-story, 46,000-square-foot building that will house the library and municipal offices.

The old town hall was razed last year, and the library may face the same fate.

Township Manager Scott Carew said a task force studying where to situate the municipal court and police headquarters is considering whether the library could be adapted to those purposes. Its report is due next month, he said.

In addition to the "considerable" cost of modifying the building, Carew said, Ragan has concluded that the court will need 140 parking spaces in addition to those serving the new library and town hall and the township's nearby recreation center, now in the midst of a $700,000 renovation.

"It's fair to say a lot of people want [the library building] to come down," Carew said. The cost of demolition has been estimated between $200,000 and $250,000.

Whether Wells aficionados will fight to save the building remains to be seen. Cherry Hill knocked down its concrete Wells-designed library about six years ago.

Like Nichols, Galbraith corresponded with Wells in his final years. "He was curious about what would happen with his building," he said.

But Galbraith said he was confident patrons will warm quickly to the new, multiuse building rising 75 yards away. The steel was finished last week, said Michael Schaefer, project manager for Greyhawk, the Moorestown-based firm overseeing construction.

The 46,000-square-foot building, faced in a redbrick pattern found on several other buildings in town, will house most of the township's municipal offices in about 20,000 square feet of space.

The remaining 26,000 square feet will be devoted to the library, whose public spaces, including meeting rooms, will be "functional and adjustable," according to Galbraith. Most spaces will be surrounded by windows, topped by 20-foot ceilings, and warmed by a radiant heat system built into the floors.

Its ceilings will contain WiFi routers whose signals will permeate the building, said Galbraith, and which can be easily replaced "when new technologies come along."

Like some bookstores, the Moorestown Library will also have a cafe where visitors can get coffee and snacks, and an outdoor terrace where visitors can sit.

"Some people have drunk the Google Kool-Aid and think libraries are as outdated as buggy whips in the digital age," Galbraith said. "But we are the single busiest place in this community" besides the schools.

"Five hundred people come through our doors every day. A lot of people are still buying buggy whips."


Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or doreilly@phillynews.com or @doreillyinq on Twitter.

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