Chestnut Hill Library in chronic need of repair

by Tom Beck
Posted 12/7/22

The Chestnut Hill Library, which has been closed to the public since mid-November when the ceiling collapsed and the building’s boiler stopped working, may not be open again for quite some time.

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Chestnut Hill Library in chronic need of repair


The Chestnut Hill Library, which has been closed to the public since mid-November when the ceiling collapsed and the building’s boiler stopped working, may not be open again for quite some time. 

While the bidding process for the ceiling and boiler repairs wrapped up last week, children’s librarian Prather Egan said she can’t say when the work will be done. 

“A timeline for reopening is pretty impossible,” Egan said. “Until work starts and they determine the extent of necessary repairs, there’s no way of knowing.”

The current closure is just the last incident in a string of maintenance-related events that have plagued the library. Jan LaSuer, president of the Friends of Chestnut Hill Library group, said deferred maintenance at the Chestnut Hill branch has been “an ongoing problem.”

“We’ve just come through COVID in which we had long periods when the public was unavailable to the public,” he said. “Then we take a breath and assume we can go back into this public space. But we can’t. They’re inaccessible because of the history of disrepair and neglect.”

First there were the raccoons, a couple of uninvited guests that librarians learned about in November of last year, when a young yearling fell through the drop ceiling. It tumbled through right above a table where children often sit and read. Then that one was followed by another. 

“After that first time, we continued to hear evidence that there was something still up there in the ceiling above the meeting room,” Egan said, so they put out pest control traps in the ceiling cavity – and caught the second raccoon right before Thanksgiving. 

“Hopefully that will be the end of it, but we need to make sure access points are sealed so that they don’t reenter the building,” Egan said.

According to Egan, the building also needs upgrades to the bathrooms, which are suffering from both ventilation and access issues due to the locks on the doors. The staff has been without its basement break room for at least a year and a half due to flooding issues. And the Free Library’s buildings department has had to install a layer of sealant over the basement floor, which has cracked twice. 

“We’ve had to coordinate breaks by using the meeting room.” Egan said. “That can get challenging because we have programs scheduled throughout the day. So that’s been tricky.”

Free Library spokesperson Kaitlyn Foti Kalosy said maintenance funds are a problem across the city, and that the Chestnut Hill branch is actually doing better than most. 

Chestnut Hill Library is in better condition than two thirds of all facilities in the library system, despite being one of the oldest Carnegie Libraries, which were built in 1907, according to Foti Kalosy. It has had two major capital projects since 2016, which paid a total of $368,348 for a new roof and new exterior doors. 

On average, the Free Library spent between $354,557 to $579,674 in capital funds per branch from 2011 to 2021.

The Free Library “does its best to repair in a timely manner either within our capital budget, operating budget, or with in-house maintenance staff,” Foti Kalosy said. “Minimizing building closures is our top priority as we address maintenance issues.”

Still, communities that value their libraries sometimes find themselves stepping up to foot the bill when bad things happen. 

When an intruder smashed the library’s front door in the spring, LaSuer’s group paid the $1,200 bill to get it fixed. The Free Library’s building department, LaSuer said, simply didn’t have the resources to fix the door in a timely manner.

“Philadelphia is the birthplace of the American Enlightenment and it's shameful how this city funds its library system compared to other cities,” he said. “It’s a crying shame.”

Egan said she hopes the Chestnut Hill Library will open sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, despite the library being closed, she and her staff have remained in the building to answer phones and provide materials services for people who reserve books and pick them up at the library.