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Lackawanna library to get $1.56 million upgrade

The Lackawanna Public Library – just four years shy of turning 100 – was the last Carnegie Library built of more than 1,650 libraries constructed in the United States by the Carnegie Foundation.

And like some grande dames, the Colonial Revival building is due for a facelift.

Thanks to more than $1.56 million in New York State library construction funding, Lackawanna's historic public library may soon be getting a badly needed upgrade, State Assemblyman Sean Ryan said.

"We want to make sure there are 100 more years in this building," said Ryan, who often visited the library as a child growing up in Lackawanna. "In this year's budget we put together $34 million of capital for library renovation, a $10 million increase over last year. Libraries all over our region have been upgraded and now it’s Lackawanna’s turn. This library was a state-of-the-art facility when it opened in 1922, and we hope with the help of the community, we can return it to that status.”

A community advisory committee made up of public officials and community leaders has formed to research and recommend technological and aesthetic upgrades for the library. Once the recommendations are finalized the board will apply for the allotted funds. Public meetings throughout the community will be held to gain additional input from residents.

"Most libraries were built before anyone was thinking about technology," said Ryan. "After 100 years of services, it's time we reimagine the use of this building."

Lackawanna Library serves as the hub of a melting-pot population of almost 19,000. The immigrant-based community utilizes the library as a meeting place, a learning center and a repository of books, music and children's activities, said Jennifer Johnston, library director.

Last year the library recorded 49,748 visits, according to Johnston, who served as the library's assistant director since 2008 and became director in 2012.

A memorial stone over a crematorium on the northeast corner of the Lackawanna Public Library property, placed by the Friends of Lackawanna Library, was dedicated in May 1994. It marks the site of the Howard's Cemetery Potter's Field. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"I am thrilled to have this opportunity. I love the diversity in this community," she said. "You're always doing something different. It's amazing the way people today use a library."

Literacy New York Buffalo-Niagara conducts weekly classes at the library for newly arrived immigrants, many of whom speak some form of Arabic, said Johnston. The state Department of Labor also visits regularly to offer employment skill training.

How important is the library to this community? The city dedicated a crosswalk to help patrons walk there.

In 2017 a new $125,000 HAWK Beacon crossing system was installed in front of the library so patrons could safely cross the four lanes of Ridge Road, one of the main thoroughfares between South Park Avenue and Route 5. Second Ward Councilwoman Annette Iafallo campaigned for years to get the signalized crosswalk installed.

Robert M. Kelly, a retired General Motors employee, worked the better part of a decade maintaining the historic library building. Over the years, Kelly grew fond of the three-story structure with the soaring Tuscan columns.

"Being around it every day you fall in love with the building," said Kelly. "They don't make it like that anymore, let me tell you that."

Construction of the building was funded by Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American philanthropist and industrialist who made his millions in the steel industry. Carnegie donated $40 million to the construction of 1,649 libraries in the United States.

"With the Lackawanna Library, the Carnegie Foundation funding was exhausted," said Martin Wachadlo, architectural historian. "This was a way to give people in small communities a leg up so they could have access to the educational support of a library."

The library was approved for construction by the Carnegie Foundation on the former site of Howard Cemetery, known as Potter's Field in 1915, where the area's indigent were buried, said Michael Malyak, library historian. The project was suspended during World War I, but the Carnegie Foundation fulfilled its promise after the war ended, said Malyak.

The building was completed in 1922, with an addition built in 1938, said Malyak.

The land parcel, originally in the Limestone Hill section of West Seneca, was proposed by the women of the Pioneer Study Club, who selected the location because of the cemetery's "deplorable condition," said Malyak. Newspaper clippings dating from the early 1900s describe an overgrown cemetery with sunken graves and exposed remains, said Malyak, who gathered the clippings to chronicle the library's construction.

"The deed that transferred the property called for exhumation of the remains," noted Malyak. "A portable crematorium was set up on site to properly dispose of them." The remains were placed in a 15-foot-by-20-foot vault buried in the northeast corner of the property, said Malyak. A memorial stone on site today and placed by the Friends of Lackawanna Library was dedicated in May 1994. It reads in part:

"The unknown, may they rest in peace … – site of Howard's Cemetery Potter's Field 1858 to 1920."

A $100,000 improvement to the library in 1990 made the building accessible to the disabled and included the construction of a vestibule at the east entrance, installation of an elevator for access to the main floor and basement, and renovation of rest rooms, said Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski. The vinyl windows that replaced the original windows today require replacement, as does the flooring, Szymanski added.

"Since 2005, the City of Lackawanna spent $224,000 on library maintenance, repairs and on capital projects, starting with a new roof," said Szymanski. "Every year we set aside funds."

An SUV that crashed through the front of the building on a fall afternoon in 2016 created a stir, recalled Kelly. It left $50,000 to $60,000 in damage, he said. Kelly also pointed to the day, not too long ago, when he and two others found two letters handwritten by Father Nelson Baker.

"We were just cleaning up – getting rid of old doors – when we found the letter in a cardboard box," Kelly said. "Wow, Father Baker's letters. We're trying to make him a saint. We better do something with them."

The letter is in the library vault and will be displayed in the local history museum on the library's ground floor, where an exhibit is dedicated to John B. Weber, a Civil War hero who donated his collection of books and memorabilia to the library. Weber was narrowly defeated by Grover Cleveland in the race for Erie County sheriff in 1870.

The Lackawanna Public Library was also the scene of a paranormal investigation in recent years, said Kelly, and others who confirmed several unexplained occurrences.

"Doors swing open and rattle, and the security alarm repeatedly went off in the middle of the night," said Kelly, who would respond to find a book had apparently fallen from a shelf to the floor.

"Even books that were lying flat would be found on the floor," Kelly said. "Kind of strange they would keep on falling."

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