Groundbreaking to begin on Paulsboro library

The original portion of the Paul House , erected in the 1790s, makes it the oldest building in Paulsboro. An encampment believed to belong to the Lenni Lenape was found buried outside. VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff
The original portion of the Paul House , erected in the 1790s, makes it the oldest building in Paulsboro. An encampment believed to belong to the Lenni Lenape was found buried outside. VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff
Posted: June 10, 2014

Traveling across the Mantua Creek into Paulsboro's two square miles of aging infrastructure, there's a modest-seeming collection of local history on the left, right, and below.

There's the home of the borough's namesake family, the house-turned-library built in 1806, and a Native American encampment under the dirt and grass. The triad of sites at Broad and Commerce Streets have become a lesson in preservation amid present-day realities.

Officials this week will break ground on a long-planned expansion of the Gill Memorial Library, which was a house, general store, and doctor's office before it was donated to the borough in 1949. The library has saved nearly $800,000 over 30 years from its annual budget, typically about $130,000, to fund the expansion.

"It's always been a dream that at some point we were going to have enough money to build an addition," said School Superintendent Walter Quint, project manager for the expansion.

"It hasn't been easy," said Rita Kelly, a retired elementary schoolteacher and president of the library board of trustees. Librarian Violet Valentin, called the expansion "well overdue."

That's because, in 2012, after finally gathering enough funding, the library was poised to move across the street into the Samuel P. Paul House and construct a one-floor addition. But instead of more room for books and the town's historic treasures, the library got only more of the latter.

An archaeological survey at the time discovered nearly 800 historic and prehistoric artifacts dating back thousands of years, left behind in a small encampment believed to be Lenni Lenape. A red sandstone gorget and shards of pottery were among the artifacts to be added to the collection usually stored on the second floor and in the attic of the Gill library.

"It was definitely a nice little site," said Douglas Mooney, senior archaeologist with URS Corp., which conducted the survey. "I think we could have learned quite a bit had there been additional excavation."

The state prohibited the borough from building on the encampment site because of its historical significance, and officials were unable to finance a full-scale archaeological dig.

So the library will stay in its current home and build an addition in back.

Officials have since had to resecure a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for nearly $400,000, and Borough Council has had to bond more than $300,000 to help fund increased costs resulting from the change in plans.

A groundbreaking ceremony Thursday at the two-story library will celebrate the patience of an eager library board. The building's narrow halls, small second-floor bathroom, and a fireplace speak to its former life. It is not handicap-accessible.

The addition, though, will be about the new: Architects designed the 2,200-square-foot addition with Paulsboro's industrial DNA in mind. Ceiling-to-floor crossbars are a nod to the nearby bridge over the creek.

"What's old looks old, what's new really kind of celebrates who this town is," Quint said.

The added space will lead into the 1,200-square-foot first floor and will include a children's space equipped with a small stage and adult stacks. The library board plans to obtain more computers.

It will be far different from the crammed space that has limited the collection to 23,000 books, a tight house that Valentin has come to know. She began as librarian 28 years ago, when plans for more space were already being discussed.

The approximately $1.5 million project is expected to be complete by next summer; the library plans to continue penny-pinching to pay off the bond. In the meantime, congested rooms have been vacated as the library operates from Paulsboro High School after school and on Saturdays.

When the library reopens next year, the borough plans to turn its attention back across Broad Street.

Mooney said the important thing was to protect the yard so further archaeological studies can "see what that site can teach us."

Officials hope to find funding to convert the Paul House, which it bought in 2010, into a home for a historical society, Quint said.

A printing press left with the property that once printed the town newspaper will join the library's collection of items of interest, along with the treasures unearthed outside. There could be more.

Paulsboro, Quint said with a smile, is "turning out to be a little more historic than we thought."


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917

@AJFichera

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