Before the holidays, a Bellevillite in her late 60s climbed the stairs of the , turned to her right and stood mesmerized at the sight that had been hidden for so many years.
“I heard her say, 'Oh my God!'” Library Board President Richard Yannuzzi said. “She was literally standing there and starting to cry: 'I haven't seen this in years.'”
This is what others are seeing when they come to 221 Washington Ave. since the nearly $400,000 first phase of its renovation was completed late last year: the building's original facade as a stunning visual centerpiece upstairs, complete with the original columns and pediment included in the original design of one of New Jersey's original 36 Carnegie libraries back in 1911, finally in full view after being sheltered from the elements during 1970s attempts to modernize the library's look.
“I come out of my office everyday and it's stunning,” Library Director Joan Taub said. “It was really Mr. Yanuzzi's vision. He has a strong sense of Belleville's history.”
Two more phases will complete the renovation by the end of 2013. Phase two is expected to commence this spring with architect Robert Cozzarelli – who oversaw the first part of the project and was awarded the contract in December for this coming step, according to Yannuzzi – designing a new area surrounding the facade. Among the changes: relocating the upstairs offices and centrally located stairwell toward the far corner to create more open space, as well as moving the light stanchions currently standing near the newly refurbished entrance outside.
Although the second phase will cost between $150,000 and $200,000, Yannuzzi assured that the renovation's cost will not affect Belleville residents.
“Not one payment is coming from additional taxpayer funds,” he said. “We're using existing library funds from the the library budget. We run a tight ship. We don't spend one penny more than we have to.”
Even before the renovation began, the library was listed in the American Institute of Architects-New Jersey named the building one of its 150 Best Buildings and Places in 2007. (Branch Brook Park, which extends into Newark, was also cited.) However, Yannuzzi wanted the library he and so many Bellevillites fondly remember from yesteryear to reflect Andrew Carnegie's original vision.
And so, private fundraising efforts helped this vision take shape. Although the library receives funds annually from the township, its board is an independent entity that can autonomously spend on projects without approval from the Municipal Council.
Deputy Mayor and Second Ward Councilman Steve Rovell was among the most staunch proponents of this renovation.
“That's history to me,” Rovell said. “Why shouldn't (residents) be able to see their history?”
Geneva Landolfi and Olga Heerbrandt are Belleville natives who fondly remembered coming to the library years ago – and taking their children there during their formative years. Heerbrandt, who relocated to Barnegat, called the original facade “so elegant.”
Meanwhile, Landolfi, a lifelong resident, had not been upstairs in several years, so she was stunned when she saw the results of the first phase that also included a new triangular skylight.
“This is really nice,” Landolfi said. “Amazing.”
While phase two will create more open space, the third and final phase will include the Friends of the Library's purchase of two, five-foot tall bronze lions replicating the ones greeting entrants at the New York Public Library that will reside near the upstairs computer lounge; phase three is estimated at $125,000, according to Yannuzzi.
In the here and now, children visiting the library can see a similar version to the ones their parents enjoyed since the completion of the renovation's first phase. Many of the nearly 400 youngsters who visited for Three Kings Day on Jan. 3 marveled at what refurbished facade.
“To have it now be available for people to see is meaningful considering we were an original Carnegie library,” Yannuzzi said. “This is a significant piece of not only Belleville's history, but U.S. History.”