Library tells its own story

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Brian MacWithey and Maria Aleman were surprised and excited when their very own workplace, Pioneer Memorial Library, was featured as No. 11 on “The Top 25 Most Beautiful Libraries in America” on Bob-Vila.com .

MacWithey, library director, said it reminded him of the history and beauty the building has.

“We obviously hold the building in high esteem, but after a while, it’s like I’m just going to work,” MacWithey said.

Aleman, the library’s assistant director, said people have frequently marveled at the building and complimented on it since it was featured.

“A lot of our patrons think it’s just a wonderful thing,” Aleman said. “They come in and tell me, ‘It’s national!’”

MacWithey said it’s the primary reason he and Aleman never want to move the library out of the building. It’s also one of the reasons they chose to feature the building on their new library cards.

History

The building’s history goes back to the 19th century, designed in 1882 by architect Alfred Giles.

At that time, it was being used as Gillespie County’s second courthouse. In fact, it is the earliest and most intact courthouse Giles had designed, according to the Gillespie County Master Plan for the Texas Courthouse Preservation Program.

“As county growth took place, most counties wanted a good, solid building for their courthouse,” said architect Barry Wagner, who worked on the building’s second restoration in 1984.

Most Texas counties, including Gillespie, started out with small courthouses and as they grew bigger, they felt it was necessary to build a bigger one.

“That’s why Texas has so many good courthouses, which is why the Courthouse Preservation Program got started (in Texas in 1999).”

The building served as the county courthouse until a third was constructed in 1939. That building still serves as the courthouse today.

During its courthouse days, it hosted a few big events like President Lyndon Johnson’s parents’ marriage in 1907. The library still has photos and that marriage record hanging on one of its walls.

After its time as a courthouse, the building took a turn for the worse, falling into disuse and disrepair.

Wagner said at one time, the building was being used as a depository for junk. Another poor use of the building during this time was that “indigent transients” often used it as a place to sleep.

“Like a lot of county structures at that time, they weren’t taking care of things like they should and thought, let’s go build a new one,” Wagner said. He assured that the county is better at preserving things now.

New life

Along came Dallas philanthropists Eugene and Margaret McDermott in the 1960s who, as stated in a previous

Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post

article, “gave Gillespie County a gift that kept on giving.”

The classic building got its first restoration, funded by the McDermotts, in 1966.

“The McDermott family, who came to Fredericksburg a lot, saw the building and decided, ‘You know, we really ought to try to preserve this’ because it really was not being used very well,” Wagner said.

Money wasn’t an issue for the Mc-Dermotts, as Wagner said Eugene McDermott earned a more than fair wage in being one of the founders of Texas Instruments.

“They had money and they had a foundation,” Wagner said. “And they approached the county and said, ‘We’d like to purchase this building, and turn it into something.’ And it turned into a library.”

The library was looking for a bigger building at that time, so the decision was made for them to move in.

Landmark

A year after its restoration, the building became a Registered Texas Historical Landmark. In 1981, the building was designated as a State Archaeological Landmark.

In 1984, the building underwent a second restoration. Wagner, who had just moved back and opened an office in Fredericksburg in 1980, had the opportunity to work on it.

At that time, the building received its elevator and, since the rods that replaced the columns in 1966 were starting to sag, it received steel beams.

Aleman said she and the rest of the library staff had to keep working when this restoration was taking place.

Wagner said the building has been a library ever since its 1966 restoration. Talks about moving it have come up, but nothing has come to fruition.

“There have been various studies done over the years about ‘where is the library going to go someday,’ and there were studies about maybe trying to build a new building,” Wagner said. “Nothing’s ever really materialized out of that.”

MacWithey said as far as he can tell, the library will be staying put for a while.

“Anytime it’s brought up, people are all for it, but then they realize it won’t be in the center of town, which is a real selling factor because it’s convenient,” MacWithey said.

He added that while there is enough land in the area, purchasing said land might not be feasible.

Technology

While keeping its classic feel, it continues to gain a few upgrades here and there.

“We had one computer when I came in 1999 and it was dial-up and now we’re up to nine public internet stations and five catalogs for the public to look materials up and such,” Mac-Withey said.

Wagner ended by saying, from an architectural standpoint, the building is worth preserving because of the significance it has. He said a library is “a great fit for the building” because it gives a lot of people the opportunity to see it.

“I would really hate to see it go back into just regular county offices,” Wagner said.

Aleman and MacWithey both agreed, and Aleman said she would hate for it to become something like a museum.

“Its location is its best feature besides the obvious style and heritage,” Macwithey said. “It serves its best purpose as being a library.”

That means people will get to experience its heritage for the foreseeable future.