The stately Enid M. Baa Public Library and Archives in downtown Charlotte Amalie – closed to the public since the Charles W. Turnbull Regional Library opened in 2012 – is being reimagined as a cultural gathering place and tourist welcome center that may revitalize the western end of Main Street.
Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol presented plans for the circa-1800s building at a meeting of the St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Committee on Tuesday along with Jeffrey Boschulte, architect for the project.
Proposals to turn the library into a commercial and community space have been floated since 2013 but never took root. Historic Preservation Committee members on Tuesday were largely complimentary of the new plans that would also see the building become the new home of the V.I. Council of the Arts, which currently leases space in the Francois Building.
“There is a lot of purpose to the redesign and repurposing of the Baa Library and using it on multiple levels,” said Oriol. “I’m really trying to enhance the western end of the downtown area. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the great work that the Virgin Islands Council of the Arts does. They have very great events, very well attended, whether it’s music, whether it’s culinary, arts — book clubs is something that they are trying to get into,” but have space limitations at their current location, he said.
Planning a new life for the building started about a year and a half ago, said Oriol. “What we see is that a lot of the visitors that come downtown, they really sometimes don’t even make it all the way to Market Square. So, we thought that if we actually had a welcome center on the western end, then perhaps the start of the tour, of the trekking into downtown, could start on the western end,” he said.
“A couple of ways we’re going to do that is by repurposing the building as it’s really lost its use as a library,” said Boschulte. “Since the new library opened in Tutu, because of various difficulties with staffing and whatnot, the building has largely been used as a repository for collections. All of these materials are scheduled to be scanned and removed from the building to make way for the project,” he said.
The V.I. Council of the Arts would occupy the top floor, which would include a balcony and leasable event space also featuring art exhibits and seminars, while the first floor would become a welcome center with public restrooms, a permanent “Made in the V.I.” retail store and a mural of the official USVI madras pattern in collaboration with the Tourism Department.
“We just really see this building as such a beautiful, glorious building that could be doing so much more,” said Oriol. “It’s Christmastime right now. I’ve already been in the popup shop on St Croix, twice. The popup shop on St. Thomas opens on Monday. They run out of products with the limited amounts that they have. What we wanted to do is give people a higher profile so they can increase their products and increase their sales, and we think being on Main Street itself will help the vendors, the VICA artists. We will be firm in that, in order to make it into that shop, you must truly be a made in the V.I. product. … We are really and truly promoting our own, and that will be a firm requirement,” he said.
Under the Planning and Natural Resources proposal, the second floor would house a classroom, tutoring space and computer stations for students, public research and general internet use.
“The computer center is my attempt to ensure that the young Virgin Islanders who live on the western side of St. Thomas have access to a computer facility” without having to travel to the library in Tutu, said Oriol.
In keeping with the building’s history, the second floor also will have an archival exhibit and cultural history exhibit of the territory’s centenarians and genealogy.
In the courtyard at the back of the building, an old cistern will be removed to make room for a small stage and a gathering place for community events. Oriol said it has not been used for 20 to 25 years since the facility was connected to city water. The area under the cistern will be paved with the same yellow bricks, sourced from St. Croix, used in the rest of the space, Boschulte said.
“The idea here is, again, trying to find alternate uses for the space and bring some life back to this part of the town by having a potential gathering space for events,” said Boschulte. Fees from renting out the courtyard and other areas will in turn help the Department of Planning and Natural Resources pay for the upkeep of the building, he said.
Much work remains to be done to turn the proposal into reality, including hurricane damage repairs to the roof, windows and shutters, alleviating flooding issues, reconfiguring the rabbit warren of rooms on the first floor that currently is separated into four bays and, not least, carving out space for an elevator.
“What we are proposing, in terms of alteration to the structure, is to create some openings in the walls between the bays so you can pass through from each bay to the next” without having to venture outside, said Boschulte. The elevator would be contained in one corner and would not require any additions to the outside of the building, which will look just as it does now, though the shaft will protrude a few feet from the rooftop, he said.
A key goal also is to make the building fully accessible, which, beyond the elevator, includes bathrooms that conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act, Boschulte said. At least one of the doorways to the building from Main Street also will be renovated to be wheelchair accessible, he said.
After getting answers to a variety of questions concerning everything from landscaping to the water supply in the event of a power outage, committee members were receptive to the plan. Chair Pamela Montegut called it a “grand proposal” and a “welcome project for the western end of town in Charlotte Amalie,” despite voicing reservations about how the elevator shaft will affect the building’s roofline. New member William Newbold was more effusive in his praise.
“I just want to compliment the thought and effort and inspiration on this. As chance would have it, in the next hour or so I’m heading to a Hotel Association board meeting and they will be thrilled to hear that this renovation is going to hopefully be undertaken very soon, because one of the ongoing problems … is the lack of bathrooms and public facilities for visitors, and residents for that matter, and having a really well-thought-out visitor center with local crafts and all kinds of other amenities, I think it’s just a wonderful addition to this end of town,” Newbold said.
“Congratulations, commissioner, this looks like a great design,” said member Enrique Rodriguez.
“I do want to commend the commissioner for pursuing a project like this. We talk a lot about the government occupying its own space and how it does so in a better, more efficient, and effective [way]. I think this is a step in that direction. Congratulations on the project,” said member Kurt Marsh Jr.
“I actually could walk around this building with my eyes closed because my dad was a librarian there,” said member Akil Petersen. “I love the designs very much.”
The committee voted unanimously to continue the application as it moves ahead.
While the cost of the project, a timeline and funding sources were not discussed at Tuesday’s meeting, the Federal Emergency Management Agency in September obligated $705,527 to complete hurricane repairs at the library. “This funding is crucial as we look to reopen this landmark facility and bring new interest to the western end of Main Street,” Oriol said at the time.
Oriol said then that he hoped to secure a contract to start the repairs by March 2022 and finish by November 2022.
Additionally, FEMA has obligated $5.7 million in funding for the restoration of the territory’s libraries, Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne L. Williams-Octalien said in a news release announcing the allocation in September. “The Office of Disaster Recovery thanks FEMA for this award and looks forward to the completion of all of the Territory’s libraries by January 2023.”
Committee members attending Tuesday’s meeting were Montegut, Newbold, Marsh, Petersen, Rodriguez, David Knight Sr., and Sean Krigger.