Library hopes to get creative with Maze renovation

? The back end could be rebuilt and the front entrance made wheelchair accessible, but a lot depends on how the public reacts.

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By KEN TRAINOR

The Maze Library redo is starting to get interesting.

After a fall filled with public tours and focus groups and forums to gather public input on the planned renovation of the south side branch library, a few more dramatic ideas have surfaced?#34;which will require the library to go back to the public to see what they think of them.

If you haven't been following this, dollars for a Maze Branch renovation were included in the new main library referendum several years back. When the new library came in under budget, that freed up some extra dollars for the Maze redo.

So library officials started reaching out to the public to find out what their priorities were. A Maze committee was created, consisting of four library trustees, three library staff members, and three community members.

The 1936 building by architect E.E. Roberts obviously needed some modernizing, especially on the lower level, but most said they wanted the cozy atmosphere upstairs preserved.

Of course, there's cozy, and then there's claustrophobic. The expanding array of available library materials, not to mention computer terminals, have further cramped an already tiny facility.

Library Assistant Director Jim Madigan said that, after all the public comments were gathered and processed, one of the committee members, Frances Figg, an architect and south Oak Park resident, came up with the idea of expanding the far back (west) end of the facility.

This boxy extension, Madigan said, looks like an addition though it's part of the original structure. The committee and the architect, Alan Armbrust (FGM Architects

- Engineers in Oak Brook) discussed two ideas for expanding the library's short supply of square footage:

1) Take off that section and rebuild it slightly larger (on both levels) or

2) Keep the section intact, but add to it on both sides.

The ideal scenerio, say Madigan and Armbrust, would be the new construction option because it would maximize square footage. That section of the building carries very little architectural adornment or interest, and Armbrust says they can match the original to the point where the casual observer wouldn't notice any difference.

But this is an E.E. Roberts building, and Maze fans are pretty devoted, so Madigan said they'll need to see how the public reacts.

"We don't want anyone thinking we were trying to slip something by," Madigan said. "We'll put it out there and see what the reaction is."

If there's a strong preference for keeping the original segment intact, Armbrust said, they could still build small additions on each side and create doorways in the north and south load-bearing walls. That would cut down on the usable space, but they can do it.

Either way, the expanded back section would block one window to the north (the adult reading section) and one to the south (the children's section). But it wouldn't be visible from Gunderson Avenue.

"We don't want to mess with the symmetry of the building," said Madigan.

The expanded back section would allow the installation of a lift on the south end toward Harrison Street. The lift would allow entry directly into the children's section on the first floor and the meeting room on the lower level. But that alone wouldn't solve the accessibility issue, Madigan said, because the ground floor is split level. There are stairs between the adult reading section and the children's section. So the lift needs an extra door for entry to the adult section behind the front desk.

The current stairway, which is too narrow for current building code, would be eliminated, Madigan said.

Raising the front door
But that's not the only intriguing proposal in the works for Maze. The other one involves making the front entrance accessible to patrons with disabilities. Originally no one thought that was possible because inside the exterior front doors there's an extra set of stairs leading up into the library proper.

As it turns out, Roberts' original plans, Madigan said, included a flagstone path from Harrison Street north toward the front door. That raised the possibility of creating gently sloping walkways from both Harrison on the south and the alley on the north, meeting at the front door, which would allow wheelchairs to bypass the front steps.

"We didn't want people with disabilities feeling like they were using the 'back door'," Madigan said. "It's more inclusive."

Having two walkways would also preserve the front symmetry, but it didn't solve the problem of the inside lobby steps.

Then they got lucky. The transom over the exterior front door is 19 inches high. As it happens, so are those inside stairs. If they eliminated the transom and raised the doors, they could also eliminate those inside stairs without obstructing the display cases on either side.

"I wish I could say it was brilliant," said Armbrust, "but it was just a coincidence."

The current external doorway frame would not be affected, so it wouldn't change the look of the building, Armbrust said. There would probably be some railings along the sloping walkways, but landscaping would lessen the visual impact.

Madigan said they would like, for security purposes in addition to inclusiveness, to maintain the single front entrance for the public.

"It's easier to keep an eye on the kids," he said.


Public reaction
How Maze patrons and the public at large will react to these suggestions remains to be seen. A presentation on the new plans is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 26, and for a Saturday shortly thereafter, Madigan said.

"We don't want anyone to feel surprised by this," Armbrust said. "We want their reaction. We don't want anyone to feel that this was done secretly."

And they have time to gather that input. Under any circumstances, work wouldn't begin until after the popular summer reading program ends in August. Then the branch library would be closed for up to 10 months during construction.

The extra space would give them approximately 1,000 more square feet on each floor from the current total of 6,500 square feet, Madigan said, so the usable footage would increase about a third. It would also allow them to put more of the library materials in the back section, freeing up space in the upstairs adult reading section for more chairs, one of the more popular public suggestions.

"We'd like it to be a click-free zone," said Armbrust, referring to computer keyboards.

The florescent light grids overhead would come out, replaced by wall lights that highlight the wooden beams, plus hanging lights. The fireplace on the north end of the reading room would be converted to gas and become usable.

How much will it cost?
Madigan is still waiting for revised budget figures. He plans to present them to the board at their Jan. 18 meeting. He's hoping the available dollars will cover all this, but just in case they don't, he's pursuing state grant money for accessibility.

"So much of this is about access," Madigan said. Those dollars were more plentiful in the recent past, but budget woes have made them tougher to find. Madigan drove seven hours to Springfield and back on Monday to answer any questions at their $18,000-plus grant request hearing, but they were turned down. "In 1999," he recalled, "we requested $150,000 for the Dole renovation, and we got it. That was a typical grant. This year, the entire state budget line item for accessibility grants was $150,000.

"This is a well-used, beloved building, and we're taking a creative approach to addressing the accessibility issue, so we were hoping for the best," Madigan said.

Some grant money may be available to address lighting issues. Other revenue generating ideas including selling bricks, as they did with the main library building.

CONACT: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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