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State grant boosts effort to renovate and expand Melrose library

The exterior of the Melrose public library.
The exterior of the Melrose public library.Melrose Public Library

A longstanding effort to overhaul Melrose’s historic public library building has gained fresh momentum with recent new funding.

Since 2013, the city has been pursuing plans to carry out a major renovation and expansion of the 1904 brick edifice that officials say suffers from poor handicap access, a leaky roof, and other needs.

On July 8, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners awarded the project a $7.99 million grant, which could grow by up to $279,765 if certain energy efficiencies are included. The award is contingent on Melrose covering the remaining costs of the project — which it has previously estimated at a total of $18 million — by next January.

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On July 21, Melrose’s library trustees voted unanimously to commit $2 million to the project, according to Mayor Paul Brodeur. The money, drawn from library trust funds, would offset what City Council needs to borrow to cover the local share. Private donations also are welcome.

“This is a very critical investment,” Brodeur said of the project, noting that the venerable library “needs a lot of restoration and preservation. We are using a 1904 building to service a 21st-century community.”

Brodeur said he is hopeful city councilors will support the plan, which he intends to place before them when a new cost figure is prepared and he has a chance to educate voters about the proposal.

“This is a group that is very focused on the financial well-being of the city but also on meeting the needs of our residents in keeping up with our critical infrastructure,” he said of councilors.

The library on West Emerson Street was among many built with funds from industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The city constructed an addition in 1963, and undertook a partial renovation in 1992, but has not significantly upgraded it since, according to city library director Linda Gardener.

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Gardener said the building’s inadequate access is highlighted by the fact that people with disabilities need to use a steep 76-foot ramp at the rear of the library to gain entrance.

“That’s not the welcome we want to be providing,” she said.

The building also is too small to meet the library’s current needs, and suffers from aging HVAC systems, a worn-out roof, and a confusing physical layout that can make it difficult for patrons to navigate.

The proposal calls for replacing the existing 1963 addition with a new larger one, increasing the size of the overall facility to 26,579 square feet. A new fully accessible front entrance would be constructed, the roof replaced, and new HVAC systems installed.

By adding and reallocating space, the project will also provide an enhanced children’s area, a dedicated young adult room, and more space for adult programming. An area is also being created for patrons to explore new technologies.

Gardener said the proposed project, which also includes restoring sections of the limestone brick exterior, was a way of “looking forward, and backwards to our history.”

“The renovation will allow us to highlight and enhance the beauty of the original Carnegie building, improve the ability of staff to provide effective services, and enable us to have multiple programs at the same time, which currently we cannot effectively do,” she said.

The popularity of the library — which has annual circulation numbers consistently among the highest in its regional network — is another reason the upgrade makes sense, Gardener said. “Melrose is a community that continues to value its public library service.”

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Denise Gaffey, Melrose’s director of planning and community development, said that the city considered other options for the project — including building a new library on another site — but the current plan was its clear preference from the start.

“It’s a great opportunity to invest in this historic building that is beloved by the community but is not functioning well for the needs of the city today,” she said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.