New library a multi-year project

By Jim Hagerty 

DOWNTOWN – Tearing down the main branch of the Rockford Public Library and rebuilding a new facility will likely be five-year project. But it’s worth the wait, officials say.

“I am anxious for it to start,” said Rockford Public Library CEO Lynn Stainbrook.

Exelon-owned ComEd has agreed to spend $33 million on the project. The Rockford City Council and Rockford Public Library Board of Trustees approved the plan with the energy company this week.

The multi-dimensional plan involves moving the operation to a temporary location, razing the 114-year-old library, removing tons of coal tar and building a new, state-of-the-art facility in its place.

Initial plans were to drill into the foundation to clean up the tar underneath the building with hopes of saving the structure. Those plans were later scrapped because drilling would have resulted in structural problems requiring potential additions and forced staff evacuations.

Nixed also was an attempt for historic status because the library’s original structure had been altered over the years.

“The problem was that the building just doesn’t function as a 21st-century-library,” Stainbrook said. “It functions more as a library of the 1960s.”

Razing the building will allow workers direct access to containers containing the coal tar, residue from the manufactured gas plant that operated at 215 N. Wyman St. for 40 years in the 1800s. Demolition and remediation of the site is expected to take about two years, Stainbrook said.

Meanwhile, the library will move to 214 N. Church St., the former Montgomery Ward building that most recently was used as the Winnebago County Resource Intervention Center. Before that, it was a satellite jail.

Renovations are expected to take several months; the building will be named the Hart Interim Library, after Albert E. Hart, who built the location for Montgomery Ward in 1929. It will be sold when the new library opens.

ComEd began testing the soil around the main library nearly seven years ago amid plans to bring in Rock Valley College services.

Stainbrook said the new library will offer amenities common to modern facilities like writing rooms, meeting areas, tech-heavy programs and social services.

“We want it to be flexible so we can change with the needs of the community,” she said.

The facility is expected to span approximately 70,000 square feet.

The Rockford Public Library sits were Rockford Gas Light and Coke made gas from 1857 to 1898. The operation was moved to Avon Street in 1899. The city bought the Wyman Street property in 1902, and the library was built a year later on top of the underground coal tar containers.

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