Lexington weighs new role for Stone Building
Some residents push for branch library to remain at historic site
LEXINGTON - Once the center of civic life in East Lexington, a place where locals gathered to listen to sermons or to hear speakers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau discuss the issues of the day, the historic Stone Building is now itself the subject of local debate.
At issue: What to do with the once-proud building that, until August, served as a public library branch. For more than a century, schoolchildren met at the Stone Building to work on projects and young mothers gathered here with their children for story time. Before that, it was a public meeting hall.
But a sad chapter was written in the building's history last summer when a water pipe burst, compromising the structure and prompting officials to shutter the building. Today, leaders are considering other uses for the East Lexington Branch Library. Several ideas have been discussed, from public meeting hall to youth center.
"Given our limited resources, it's been a challenge to provide programming at the east branch while meeting the demands of our newly renovated library [Cary Memorial Library] in the town center," said library director Connie Rawson, who is soliciting ideas for the reuse of the building. A meeting on March 16 offered the community its first opportunity to express concerns and hopes for the historic building.
A final decision about the Stone Building's future probably will not be made for several months. HKT Architects Inc. is conducting a structural analysis of the building. The architects are expected to deliver their report at the end of April, according to Town Manager Carl Valente.
Designed by Isaac Melvin and built by Eli Robbins in 1833, the Stone Building was crafted in the Greek Revival style, its design inspired by drawings featured in Asher Benjamin's "The Practice of Architecture." Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"The Stone Building was built specifically as a place for free speech at a time when authorities in Lexington center were reluctant to provide a place to discuss such controversial topics as abolition and temperance," said Anne Grady, an architectural historian who has lived in Lexington since 1965. "No other building in town, or perhaps the state, has this kind of rich history. It is perhaps the most important building in Lexington."
Robbins's granddaughter, Ellen Stone, offered the building to the town in 1891. The only stipulation was that the building had to remain a meeting hall or library. For more than a century, the town maintained the building, and the library board of trustees determined the branch programming. But when the pipe burst in August, officials were forced to close the branch library, causing a stir in the community.
"I figured they'd make repairs and reopen the library in a couple of weeks," said Geneva Kropper, a seventh-grader at Clarke Middle School. "When that didn't happen, I was shocked. I couldn't believe they'd just leave it closed."
Twelve-year-old Geneva started a campaign to save the library. She went door to door with a petition, created a website to call attention to the building's plight, and fashioned bumper stickers out of orange craft paper. The bold decals read: "Got literacy? Save the East Lexington Library."
"The East Lexington Branch Library is the jewel of our community," Geneva said. "Just because it was tarnished, that doesn't mean we should lock it away and forget about it. It's not just a building. The library is a big part of the East Lexington community."
Geneva, who voiced her feelings at the community meeting, said she likes many of the ideas that have been put forth for the Stone Building, but holds out hope that leaders will preserve it as a library branch, and perhaps incorporate other uses "in a small section of the building."
Several people echoed her feelings. Not surprising, considering that about 150 people had signed Geneva's petition.
Others are trying to keep an open mind about uses for the building.
"Although it's sad to see the East Lexington Branch Library presently closed, it's refreshing to see how the town of Lexington is pulling together to save this national treasure," said Andrew McAleer, president of the East Lexington Community Association. The group is planning to discuss the Stone Building at its annual meeting in May, he said.
Added Grady: "I know there's lots of sentiment for it to be a library still, but I hear that it may not be cost effective. Whatever is decided, preserving the historic features of the interior rather than replacing them is critical."
Interested in offering your thoughts on potential uses for the Stone Building? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brenda J. Buote can be reached at email@example.com.