Selectmen Endorse Master Plan For Library Grounds

By: Tim Wood

Illustration of the proposed changes to the front lawn of the Eldredge Public Library. LEN SUSSMAN ILLUSTRATION

CHATHAM – A comprehensive master plan concept for the Eldredge Library grounds, including a restoration and repositioning of the Pioneers Monument along Main Street, was endorsed by the board of selectmen Tuesday.

The most significant changes being proposed involve the construction of a sitting wall along the sidewalk in front of the library. The monument, erected in 1924 in honor of Chatham's first European settlers, would be the wall's most prominent feature; it would be lowered to sidewalk level and the wall would curve around it. The semi-circular walkway that leads to the library's front entrance would be regraded to comply with accessibility requirements, and an Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant path added from the front of the building to the parking lot off Library Lane.

Other site improvements, including new lighting, landscaping and bike racks, are included in the master site plan, along with more brick-and-mortar upgrades such as roof repairs, HVAC system improvements and electrical upgrades.

With the selectmen's endorsement, staff will refine the details of the plan and develop cost estimates so the project can be included in the capital budget for next fiscal year and placed before voters at the May annual town meeting, said Principal Projects and Operations Administrator Terry Whalen. No cost estimates were presented Tuesday. Whalen said some community preservation funds could be used for the project, especially related to restoring the monument.

Selectmen, however, liked what they saw.

“It's really a welcoming design,” said Selectman Shareen Davis. “The sitting wall's going to be a great addition to the sense of community the library fosters.”

Selectman Dean Nicastro, the board's liaison with the library board of trustees, “enthusiastically” endorsed the concept.

“The library, as everybody knows, is the showplace of downtown” and the “heart and spirit of the community,” he said.

The trustees began working on a plan to remake the front lawn of the library about a decade ago, President Joe Gagliano said. But there were design issues, including opposition to a proposal to relocate the monument. When the economy crashed, the project was put on hold.

Now both the trustees and the Friends of the Eldredge Public Library support moving ahead with the plans, and there have been favorable discussions with those interested in the monument – said to include the Nickerson Family Association. There's also a liability issue, Gagliano said; last winter four people fell on their way along the walkway from the parking lot to the library.

“There's a lot of treacherous areas,” around the historic 1896 building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, he said.

The monument, which lists the names of Chatham's first settler, William Nickerson, his sons and the “first comers” who came soon after, will be the centerpiece of the low sitting wall, said Friends President Kerry Brown. As shown in designs created by former selectman Len Sussman, the wall will be tapered and look “quite lovely,” he said.

The monument, which Whalen said is “in need of attention,” would be lowered about 30 to 36 inches so that it is level with the sidewalk. Currently, it sits several steps above the sidewalk. The plaque mounted on the monument will not be changed, but the base and surrounding stone needs repair, he said. Historical Commission Chairman Frank Messina said he hoped that aspect of the project becomes a priority.

“The monument could use stabilization,” he said.

The monument “To the Pioneers of Chatham” was erected by William Emery Nickerson, a ninth generation descendant of William Nickerson.

Selectmen agreed that lowering the monument and making it the focus of the surrounding sitting wall will improve its prominence. Davis said she was glad to see that happen, as her ancestors, and those of her husband, are listed on the monument. Selectman Jeffrey Dykens agreed, adding that the brick facing of the sitting wall was a “really nice touch” that will enhance the library's appearance.

Stephen Buckley was concerned that lowering the monument would make it less prominent. Currently it can be seen above cars parked along Main Street and is a good place to get a wide view of the area. “It's a great perch,” he said. If it's lowered it will be “sitting in a hole.” He requested that staff look at lowering it less, perhaps just one step above the sidewalk grade.

Dykens was also concerned that a brand new six-foot-wide sidewalk in front of the library, with ADA-compliant crossings and grades, would look out of place compared to other sidewalks in the area, “which are pretty beat.” Whalen noted that sidewalks to the east are slated to be rebuilt as part of a proposed sewer project.

Other access upgrades being proposed include new railings on the steps to the Main Street entrance to the library; currently there are two along the sides of the stairs, Gagliano said; the project would add a third in the middle of the stairs. Railings would be added along a new, better delineated sidewalk from the parking lot to the side entrance. Kiosks may be added to protect the book dropboxes from the weather, along with improved lighting in the parking lot.

According to a preliminary site master plan overview, if funding is approved in the spring, construction on the project could begin next fall and be completed by spring 2019.