CINCINNATI — Renovations at the Walnut Hills Library Branch on Kemper Lane are long overdue, said officials with the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. The French Renaissance-style structure has not received significant upgrades since it was built in 1906.
The major issue with the property was that it was not accessible to residents with disabilities. Patrons had to climb a steep set of stairs to enter, meaning it was virtually impossible for those in wheelchairs or those who have difficulties getting around.
The lower level of the building had also sustained significant water damage and was not in use. That downstairs portion of the property was not very accessible either, as there wasn’t an elevator for people to use to get to the auditorium or other meeting rooms down there. The library’s parking lot was an issue as well, as it was deemed hazardous and too small to sufficiently meet the needs of the various patrons that came to visit from throughout Walnut Hills.
“We really are looking at this as a reinvestment to honor that original generational investment from the 1900s,” said Executive Director Paula Brehm-Heeger. She said they’re excited to go forward so that, “we're leaving that great investment, adding to it, and giving future generations the opportunity to enjoy this library public space here in Walnut Hills in that same way that we all have for decades.”
The enhancements being made to Walnut Hills are part of a larger 10-year library system facilities master plan. On average, branches and facilities in the system had not been built or renovated for 43 years. Allocating funds and effort into updating and beautifying the spaces is the library system’s way of preserving them while simultaneously bringing them into the 21st Century.
Price Hill is another branch that has recently undergone major changes to become more accessible. The Madisonville Library is also set for significant renovations. Brehm-Heeger projects that the Walnut Hills Library’s renovations will cost about $12 million. The funds are being pulled from the state’s public library fund, as well as local levies mandated for operations and facility improvements.
After conducting almost 100 listening sessions and gathering feedback from thousands of people in Walnut Hills and across Hamilton County, the public library administration started executing its plans to make several major changes back in January 2020. Megen Construction is carrying out the changes; Fishbeck is the project's architect.
The objective is to make the library larger and more accessible. In addition to doubling in size to about 22,000 square feet, the entrance and all other public service areas are being upgraded to full accessibility. Seven small and medium-sized meeting and study rooms, as well as a large community room will be constructed downstairs. The auditorium seating nearly 100 people will also be restored.
To enhance its parking options, the library will use a lot across the street for patrons. Administrators were able to acquire the lot next door to the branch before much of the current gentrification in Walnut Hills began to unfold. This advantage is what is allowing the library to grow to a more expansive public space with more meeting areas and services.
“We're looking forward to welcoming people that couldn't use a library before here in this neighborhood, people that couldn't navigate the steps for whatever reason, whether that be due to age, or disability,” said Ashley Barnhill, the Walnut Hills Library Branch Manager. “We do have a history of going out into the neighborhood, but the library should be accessible to all…”
The branch has been operating out of a small temporary location just steps away on East McMillan Street as renovations are being conducted. Officials expect that having the extra space in Walnut Hills will allow them to host different programs and guests in the building at once. That way, people with different needs and interests can all comfortably use the library simultaneously. The library might also begin lending out other items and services aside from books and multimedia that locals would find practical.
Historic parts of the building, like its tilework, its glasswork, and its World War II memorial, will be maintained through the renovations. Officials say they want to commemorate the branch’s rich past through its architecture. The Walnut Hills Library is special in that it was the first of the nine original Hamilton County libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie, the renowned philanthropist. A lot of importance was placed on the branch at the time it was built because Walnut Hills was such an important district in its cultural and business activity at the time that it was built.
Officials say they recognize the changes surrounding the library in today’s Walnut Hills, and hope the historic significance of the library combined with its revitalization for modern needs will help locals feel grounded.
“All around here, there is a lot of development,” Brehm-Heeger said. “[W]e continue to see ourselves as an anchor for the community, and a place that people can come to and understand and feel welcomed.”
Renovations at the Walnut Hills Branch are set to be complete in early 2022.
Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.
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