Last month the Jamaica Plain Branch of the Boston Public Library began commemorating the building’s centennial anniversary with a series of activities for adults and children.
Led by the Friends of the JP Branch, in cooperation with many local partners including the Jamaica Plain Historical Society, UFORGE Gallery, and the Footlight Club, the events will culminate on Saturday when the library holds its “100th Birthday Bash.”
“We’re excited,” said BPL Community Services and Branch Manager Christine Schonhart. “The Friends have done a wonderful job and have worked really hard.”
BPL Collection and Technical Services Manager Catherine Willis, author of a newly published book entitled "Images of America: Boston Public Library,” provided an overview of the little library’s long history. The Jamaica Plain Branch was originally opened in 1876 as a reading room in Curtis Hall that met the need of local bibliophiles with books supplied from the Roxbury Branch.
According to library records, on December 6, 1877, the branch was dedicated with the following words, “Books are the chief instruments of culture in adult life. Books are companions in society.”
In 1908, said Willis, a fire struck Curtis Hall, and the facility was temporarily relocated to Jackson Hall in the Masonic Building on Centre Street near the corner of Seaverns Avenue. Construction of the present building began in 1909.
At a cost of $33,000, the new library was opened to the public on July 24, 1911. A newspaper account at the time in the July 22, 1911 edition of a publication known simply as “The News” described the building as a “finely appointed structure” that included separate adult and children’s reading rooms and a lecture hall. Distinct features of the building include a mezzanine level, two fireplaces and an abundance of nearly floor to ceiling windows. “Patrons of the library will be both agreeably surprised and highly pleased with the new building,” wrote “The News.”
Though services have adapted to the times, since the branch opened a century ago, architecturally it has changed little. Library records indicate that a small addition was built by the Works Progress Administration in 1936, and the interior was renovated in 1963.
“JP has an active community of library users”, said Don Haber, co-chair of the Friends of the JP Branch. “It is the most heavily used branch in the BPL system. At 100 years of age, it is also one of the oldest buildings in the city that has not been renovated and made accessible.”
For fiscal 2011, the JP Branch has a circulation of 162,160, the highest of any branch in the city. The next-most was the West Roxbury branch with 160,841.
Haber described how nearly a decade ago, after his son broke his leg, that his child was barred from attending library programs in the branch’s basement auditorium and its mezzanine level, or even getting to the bathroom in the building which does not have an elevator.
“Twenty one years after passing the Americans with Disabilities Act there are members of the community who cannot access the library,” noted Haber.
Inspired by his experience, Haber, the Friends of the Library and other community advocates pressed the BPL for a sweeping overhaul of the antiquated structure. Their efforts were rewarded in 2006, when plans for an $8.5 million renovation (PDF) were completed. Unfortunately, the restoration has languished on the drawing board ever since. Moreover, library supporters were shocked and disheartened last year when the BPL proposed eliminating branches in some communities, including possibly Jamaica Plain. Led by the group “Say No to Branch Closings of the BPL,” opponents, some of whom demonstrated in support of the JP Branch, successfully deterred the cutbacks.
Concerning the renovation, “Its status is on hold,” said Schonhart, who stated that the BPL’s ongoing strategic plan will guide future decisions. The project, she said "may or may not be viable."
The tenacious and tireless Haber pointed out that the City’s Fiscal 2012 budget again failed to fund the needy and neglected JP Branch although it included money for the construction of the Leventhal Map Center at the central library in Copley Square, a design study at the Dudley Branch in Roxbury, and the building of a new branch library in East Boston.
“We need to bring the JP branch into the 21st century,” concluded Haber.
The Jamaica Plain Branch of the Boston Public Library will hold its “Birthday Bash” on Saturday from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. The celebration features an auction of art inspired by the library, hors d’oeuvres from La Bonne Maison, music by the International String Duo and pianist Jonathan Jarvis, a raffle, birthday cake, and more. Tickets for the fundraiser may be in purchased in advance online for a minimum of $25 each, or are available at the door for $35. For a complete list of activities leading up to the evening gala, please see the Friends of the JP Branch Library website.
[Editor's note: After initial publication, I added a sentence about library usage statistics.]