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New library a beacon of hope The North Jefferson branch library closes today as a state-of-the-art facility gets ready to open

At one corner of East Utica Street and Jefferson Avenue, the lights of a faded beauty are going out today.

For more than 75 years, the handsome Carnegie facade of the North Jefferson Library has seemed a place out of time. It closes to the public for good at 6 p.m. today.

Across the street, the history of a modern beauty is just beginning. The curves of the expansive, high-tech Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library lie in wait. On April 1, the library will officially welcome its first patrons. And on that day, it will become the first new library built in the City of Buffalo in 20 years.

"It's a long time coming," said Michael Mahaney, executive director of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

The contrast between the two buildings could not be greater.

When the North Jefferson branch was built in 1929 at a cost of $45,000, it opened as the largest branch in the city.

Generations have worn down the paint on the wooden staircase banister. In fact, everything inside this regal little building is worn, like much of the surrounding neighborhood.

Consisting of one main, rectangular room, the 7,000-square-foot building can barely squeeze its five, heavily used public computers between the bookcases and furniture.

Dozens of stacked boxes line the shelves as staffers pack up the North Jefferson branch's legacy. History speaks beneath the dim fluorescent lights, peeling paint and patched ceiling tiles.

"Certainly, there are good memories here," said patron Elverna Gidney, who has used the North Jefferson branch since 1955. "Even though this is a fine memory, it's time to move ahead. We've outgrown it."

The new Merriweather branch contains 20,000 square feet and boasts a full computer lab, auditorium and meeting rooms, in addition to wide open book stacks that were painstakingly fit into the building's modern circular design.

The $4.9 million Merriweather Library has taken nearly a decade to move from concept to completion, plagued with design challenges, cost overruns and delays that have nearly doubled its original anticipated cost.

City money has been bonded for the project five times since 1998, including an additional half million dollars that the Buffalo control board had to approve last fiscal year, said Public Works Commissioner Joseph N. Giambra.

City officials attribute high costs to the size and unique shape of the building, as well as ordinary inflation.

Patience has been a watchword as the library's opening day has been pushed back repeatedly since 1998. "It's been a long struggle to get the project done and funded," said Masten Council Member Antoine M. Thompson. "The project almost died 10 times while I've been in office."

But when the library opens to the public Saturday, Merriweather branch will become the brightest gem among the city's library branches.

Designed by local architect Robert T. Coles, the building is named for the founder of the city's oldest African-American newspaper, The Criterion. The new branch sits near the Apollo Theater and features an Afro-centric design reflective of an African village.

The design meshes six open, circular rooms on the perimeter -- symbolic of village huts -- nesting against a stunning central circle with a towering, light-filled sky dome. The central area, symbolic of the village center, houses the circulation desk.

Unlike the old North Jefferson branch, the Merriweather Library is expected to become a major community gathering spot. The building was designed so the auditorium, meeting rooms and computer lab can be accessed separately from the main library, said Paul J. Gareis, principal engineer for the city's Division of Buildings.

Thompson said he hopes the new library will be a catalyst for ongoing revitalization in the neighborhood, which has already seen signs of progress.

Over the past few days, contractors have been busy with last-minute details, from caulking work to door and cabinet adjustments. Next week, library staffers will begin moving materials from the North Jefferson branch and other storage locations to Merriweather.

Until now, the North Jefferson branch has been home to the library system's African-American Resource Center. The center represents the largest collection of African-American history and research material outside New York City, said branch manager Sandra Williams Bush.

Next week, this collection will move into the Merriweather branch, which has a special, climate-controlled archival room with glass display cases that can show off the collection to its greatest advantage.

The Library Foundation will also be endowing the library with a beautiful set of original illustrations from "Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales."

Landscaping will take a few more months, as will the arrival of the library's permanent doors, which will feature African designs.

As for the North Jefferson branch, Thompson said he hopes the venerable old building will eventually be renovated and reopened as an employment center and business incubator.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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