The laundry list of repairs is expected to be complete by the first week of March for reopening.
The Free Library of Philadelphia’s Vice President of Property Management, Jim Pecora, says the Chestnut Hill Library’s initially expected cost of repair of $19,000 has ballooned by $282,000 in what has become a “surprise mini-renovation” for the library.
“This turned into a major renovation,” said Pecora, who decided to move forward with more repairs than initially anticipated when one thing led to another. “It's just the right time to do it.”
Pecora’s repairs started with the back room’s ceiling, which partially collapsed in November when the library initially shut down. Pecora said that while the good news is that the ceiling’s joist is structurally sound, the bad news is that a thermal scan showed that there were several areas above the ceiling where moisture was getting into the building through the masonry. The best course of action, Pecora said, was to replace the entire plaster ceiling with a new drywall ceiling.
“One thing led to another,” Pecora said, “and the decision was that we were going to remove this entire ceiling.”
The removed ceiling then exposed the chewed up insulation and ductwork, likely from a raccoon, above it. So Pecora’s team is in the process of replacing that and also the ceiling lights, which couldn’t be saved.
“When we took these lights down, it was clear they were never going to go back up,” Pecora said. “They just came apart.”
Because of the issues Pecora saw above the back room’s ceiling, he didn’t feel comfortable letting people into the library even in the front room. So now the front room’s ceiling, which is higher up and nearly as large, is being replaced, too. However, Pecora says he can do the front ceiling quicker and more efficiently with some lessons he learned when replacing the back room’s ceiling. Instead of tearing out the entire ceiling and adding a new one, Pecora’s team will take sections of the ceiling down and replace them on a scaffold as they go.
“It's much more efficient,” he said.
Because the job is expected to take so long, Pecora’s team is going to replace “major components” of the building’s boiler, which has also given the library’s staff fits in the past, while they’re at it. The walls will be painted along with the new ceiling. Lastly, the building’s old smoke detectors will be replaced with a beam system of smoke detectors.
“That's much more efficient for these kinds of big spaces,” he said.
The laundry list of repairs, Pecora said, is expected to be complete by the first week of March for reopening. The Free Library system’s chronic underfunding, he added, is the key reason for all the necessary repairs.
“This speaks loudly to me in terms of the effect of deferred maintenance of many many years and decades of underfunding,” he said. “I have concerns about other libraries similar to this…The city has to fund these libraries properly or this will happen.”
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, agreed that deferred maintenance at the Chestnut Hill branch has been “a chronic problem.”
“What is concerning is that the library has been closed for Covid, and then we had staffing issues so it was closed again, and then the structural and maintenance issues have made it closed further,” added LaSuer, who thanked Pecora for his help. “We can't afford to have them be closed for such lengthy periods of time. For the city of Philadelphia to let its libraries languish and in effect disappear is beyond awful.”