By Bill Kirk
---- — It’s amazing what a little imagination — and about $70,000 — can accomplish.
With $60,000 in capital improvement money from Town Meeting, and another $10,000 collected through fund-raising, the rear entrance of Memorial Hall Library has been transformed from a sort of cruddy-looking, muddy hillside into an inviting, comfortable outdoor patio that has become a haven for local residents.
Charles Melville, 39, of Andover, recently took advantage of the outdoor seating area — and the library’s Wi-Fi network — to do a little job-searching on his computer.
“This is a big improvement,” said Melville, who has lived in town about three years. “I have a little office at home I use, but if I want to get out of the house, I come to the library. Having this space outside is great.”
He’s not the only one who’s happy about the changes.
“I haven’t done anything at the library that has gotten as much excitement and universal approval as that patio,” said Beth Mazin, library director for about 25 years. “It was an eyesore before. We got an awesome addition to the library without a big expense.”
The patio came about almost accidentally. Mazin said the masonry around the steps and handicapped-accessible ramp leading to the library’s rear entrance was in disrepair. Several years ago, Town Meeting approved spending $60,000 on improvements.
“It was disintegrating and dangerous,” Mazin said.
One day, while the engineer/architect was out measuring the site before work began, Mazin asked what, if anything, could be done about the “hideous, sloped ground” that separated the ramp from the sidewalk. The engineer, Andrew Barr out of Burlington, suggested building a retaining wall.
The wall could hold the slope back, he told her, while at the same time create a flat area that could become a more useful space.
“He said we could do it within the bounds of the capital improvements article,” she said. “I said, `Great.’”
The library quickly formed a landscape committee, led by assistant director Susan Katzenstein, to work with the town on the design of the wall and patio. The group came up with a plan, which went through the town’s design review process, and before long, it was approved.
“The landscape committee worked on a plan for landscaping that area, including a container garden, tree bed and a bed for the artwork/saucer that we moved,” she said.
While money for the major construction work came from the town, another $6,000 to $7,000 for the landscaping and furniture was raised by the library trustees and the Friends of Memorial Library.
Mazin said the finished area, compete with wrought-iron tables, has been attracting individuals, like Melville, working on their computers; mothers with their children reading books or chatting, and people just hanging out having a cup of coffee.
The owners of Andolini’s restaurant, which has an outdoor seating area directly opposite the new patio, are also happy, Mazin said, because the area has been dramatically improved.
At a recent Board of Selectmen’s meeting, member Dan Kowalski, who has used the space while telecommuting, also praised the improvements and the dedication of the staff to see it through to fruition. He said the project was “worth the money.”
“The space is for more than just library patrons,” he said. “It’s great because it catches the morning shade and then in the afternoon the umbrellas really add to it. They put a lot of thought into it. ... It’s a nice addition to the library.”
Mazin said the next step is for a second-level deck. She said the library would ask for capital improvements funding next year to build a roof deck in 2015.
She said when the addition to the library was built 25 years ago, original plans called for a deck off the second level. In fact, there is an unused door that leads out to a flat area on the second level, overlooking Essex Street. But the money was never available to finish the project.
Plans call for making the deck handicapped accessible, installing a retractable sun screen because the area is on the south side of the building and putting up a new, more secure railing. The deck will be furnished with tables and chairs.
“We haven’t presented it yet, but it’s not going to be exorbitant,” Mazin said, referring to the cost.
If the new patio on the lower level is any indication, the second-level deck will also be popular.
“People could sit outside and read, have meetings and events, and it will provide overflow space in the summer for the teen room,” Mazin said.