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Neighborhood anchor: Albany’s John A. Howe Library.

photo:John Whipple

A Landmark, Ailing

The Howe branch of the Albany Public Library could use some TLC—in the form of structural repairs and infrastructure improvements

According to local history, John A. Howe created the Albany Free Library in 1891 with the help of $200 in city funding. This appropriation of public funds for library services was the first of its kind for the city. More than a century later, the library named for Howe has become an important part of Albany’s South End community, enduring despite the ravages of time. Its caretakers hope city residents’ generosity has also endured.

“We’ve never actually had air-conditioning in here, so it’s not like we were used to it and suddenly had to go without,” laughed Scott Jarzombek, Youth Services librarian at the John A. Howe Branch of the Upper Hudson Library System. “Sure, it gets hot in here during the summer and cold in the winter, but it doesn’t stop what we do here.”

Built in 1928, the library stands on the corner of Schuyler and Broad streets near another local landmark, the Schuyler Mansion. While the buildings that house many of the region’s other libraries have had offices, shops and other entities fill the space between their walls, the Howe Branch holds the distinction of being the only library in the city’s library system that was built as a library. Constructed before many of today’s heating and cooling systems were put into use, the appeal of the structure’s tall, arching windows and wood-panel walls has long trumped the frustrations inherent to “making do with what you’ve got,” said Jarzombek.

“This library has seen a real resurgence in the last few years,” he proudly explained, one hand resting on the mantle of the building’s most famous feature: an antique “Rip Van Winkle” fireplace.

According to Jarzombek, only two or three such fireplaces still exist, causing the occasional tourist to wander in for a peek at the massive hearth and the fairytale scenes carved around its perimeter. Nearby, the library’s current heating apparatus—an industrial furnace—occupies a corner of the room, a wide metal vent facing the center of the room and a maze of PVC pipe venting exhaust through a section of a window.

“It gets a bit loud in the winter when we have to turn those on,” he said, motioning to the large, metal unit. “But when there’s a room full of kids, you don’t notice it very much.”

And on most afternoons, that’s exactly who fills the library, said Jarzombek.

Within a half-hour of unlocking the front doors on a recent Friday, more than a dozen children streamed into the building—most making a bee-line to the rows of computers, but a few heading off to read at one of the chipped, brightly painted tables scattered around the children’s section. While explaining the recent growth of the library’s collection, Jarzombek greets many of the children by name, pausing momentarily to scoop a basketball out of one young visitor’s hands. The child smiles, shrugs and jogs off to a nearby keyboard.

But it doesn’t take much investigation to see that there’s more than a lack of modern heating and cooling systems plaguing the old library. Outside the library, padlocked metal grating lies between the library’s long windows and the outside world, installed to protect the facility from after-hours intrusions like the recent robbery that, said Jarzombek, left him feeling like his own home had been invaded. The grating doesn’t prevent the occasional broken window, however. All around the brick building, many of the lower panes in the library’s windows are broken. Some of these broken panes are lined with plastic, and only a few fitted with screens. Leaves from a nearby tree lie scattered on a bush underneath one of the windows, only to be blown inside by a gust of wind.

Inside the building, the corners of every room where the ceiling meets the walls are each scarred with a muddied mess of plaster and sealant—the result of chronic roof problems.

John Cirrin, Public Information Officer for the UHLS, said the library’s recently formed, nine-person Board of Trustees is currently working on a plan that addresses the condition of the Howe Branch. In fact, said Cirrin, the board recently accepted a report from local residents in their advisory council that placed repairs to the Howe Branch as one of its highest priorities.

“We’ve had an architect look at [the Howe Branch] recently, too,” said Cirrin. “It’s a great building, but repairs have been patchwork over the years.”

Cirrin said he expects the board to complete its plan for the Howe Branch—and other branches—in the near future, after which it will be presented to the public for referendum. Now that the city’s library system isn’t a subset of the school system, residents will be able to consider each taxing authority separately, said Cirrin, voting for or against the school and library budgets on their own merits rather than lumped together as a single entity.

Many who have grown up with the Howe Branch said it’s about time their neighborhood library received some attention.

“We’re always talking about maintaining and restoring historic buildings in this city, and that building is certainly historic,” said Albany Councilwoman Carolyn McLaughlin (Ward 2), who said she remembers visiting the Howe Branch when she was a grammar school student.

“When you go into a library, it should be an inviting place—encouraging you to explore the world around you from a safe place,” she reasoned. “It’s the sort of place where there shouldn’t be so many obstacles to exploration.”

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


What a Week

Yeah, Good Luck With That

Another day, another religious fundamentalist calling for the death of a country’s president. Pat Robertson, former presidential candidate and longtime Christian televangelist, called upon the United States to assassinate Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez during a recent episode of the 700 Club. Venezuela’s vice-president described the remarks as “terrorist” threats and called upon the White House to take appropriate actions in line with American anti-terror policies.

Say What?

While we’re loathe to direct any readers to the Murdoch-soapbox New York Post, transcripts of secretly taped conversations between the governor, his wife, Pataki aide Thomas Doherty and then-U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato found their way into a recent issue of the rag. In the conversations, Libby Pataki complains about not getting enough publicity (describing Take Your Daughters to Work Day as “bullshit crap”); Doherty complains about the governor’s appointees not being given jobs quick enough and later tells the governor he’ll write something “very personal” for Pataki to say at an upcoming funeral. While a recent Times Union editorial states that publishing the transcripts “hardly counts as public service journalism” and “worse things, surely, have been discussed over the phone to and from Albany,” we feel that it’s a public service when citizens are made aware that their elected officials are just as human—and petty—as the rest of us.

Not On Our Dime

Third Ward Albany Councilman Michael Brown, who recently took the Fifth Amendment in response to 172 questions in an Albany County voter fraud case, is now facing a court order that would compel him to testify. In response to the order, Brown requested a court-appointed attorney, claiming an annual income of $36,000 and expenses exceeding that income. Those expenses included child support, a private office (despite working for the New York State Dormitory Authority, which likely provides such a workspace), a timeshare for a vacation spot and rent for his primary residence. The judge denied his request.



Overheard

Overheard:

"So I gave him $50 for 'cheese' from Vermont, and he brought back $50 worth of actual cheese! It was damn good cheese though."

—late night at the Old Songs Festival campground




Loose Ends

On Aug. 19, the Albany Civic Agenda filed suit in the State Supreme Court claiming City Clerk John Marsolais improperly disqualified 224 valid signatures on their charter reform petitions [“Give Us a Sign,” Aug. 18]. The first hearing was scheduled yesterday, Aug. 24. . . . Mark McCarthy, lawyer for Sebba Rockaway Ltd., owners of the Wellington Hotel [“On First Thought, No,” Nov. 25, 2005], recently announced that Rockaway will put the property on the market. “If the city wants the Wellington Hotel, it can have it.” said McCarthy. According to the Times Union, Rockaway is asking $5 million for the now-crumbling historic building—a steep increase from the $334,639 Rockaway claimed it was worth during a 1998 assessment. How things change, eh?



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