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Saturday, September 6, 1924: The Pavonia Branch of the Jersey City Free Public Library opened to no fanfare other than the reward of opening a new branch at breakneck speed.
The Jersey Journal, in its Monday, September 8, 1924 evening edition, reported, “The packing and removal of the books from the old library on Grove Street, the rearrangement on the new shelves, and the final preparation of the new building and its equipment were done very quickly, the branch being closed to the public for only three days. This is a record for moving a public library. The work was performed by the regular Pavonia Branch staff under the personal direction of Librarian Miller.”
The dedication ceremony occurred the next year in 1925, but the commemorative booklet records no exact date. The text began modestly in describing a very beautiful building.
“The new Pavonia Branch Library is a plain substantial building of the Italian Renaissance type of architecture and is built of stone and light brown brick. The building is of fire proof construction throughout and the floors and other woodwork are of oak. It has two stories and a basement and fronts on Pavonia Avenue. The length of the building is ninety-two feet and the depth about fifty feet.”
A booklet photograph of this “plain substantial” edifice demonstrates the formality of Italian Renaissance architecture, having, etched in stone, two carved garlands and a medallion over the main doorway and a carved garland over each window beside the door. Also stone-engraved, and with medallions on either side, underneath the dentil frieze of the ornate cornice, were the words, “FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY OF JERSEY CITY.” The words, “PAVONIA BRANCH,” were etched in stone above the door.
Even though urban renewal in the 1970s replaced the inner-city decline of the 1960s, the loss of population took its toll on Downtown Jersey City. Usage of the Pavonia Branch changed. According to then-Library Director William J. Roehrenbeck, “Things have changed now. There used to be a time when it was just a question of stocking the standards of English literature, but now we emphasize books of immediate practical value, how-to books, and books on social problems.” (Jersey Journal, December 28, 1970)
Library patronage not only changed, but also declined, thereby setting up the probability of the branch library closing. “Residents say the neighborhood is changing: Buildings are being bought and sold, demolished and built up. And the Pavonia branch of the Free Public Library, which was built in 1924 and closed its present building on Nov. 23, is a barometer of that change.” (Jersey Journal, December 28, 1970)
St. Francis Community Health Center, in a campaign of expansion, bought the surrounding property, and made a successful bid to city government for the library site. The Pavonia Branch was demolished in 1971.
As majestic as the Pavonia Branch’s first building certainly was, bricks and mortar alone did not stand for the public interest and necessity of maintaining a neighborhood library. Local residents organized, along with the Library Board of Trustees and staff, and secured city government support in providing a local branch of the Free Public Library to the residents of the Pavonia section (currently known as the Hamilton Park Historic District).
The Pavonia Branch was temporarily housed in a modular unit at 206 Pavonia Avenue. The site, between Erie and Grove Streets, had been earmarked for housing redevelopment. Discussion between then-Library Director Ben Grimm and the city’s elected officials produced interest in keeping the branch open, yet moving the modular building elsewhere.
According to an article in the Jersey Journal, dated Friday, December 20, 1974, “rumors” about the Pavonia Branch’s demise were “unfounded.” Councilman Peter J. Zampella was quoted saying that he had “received assurances from the city that there will always be a branch in the immediate area. The only change is that the prefabricated structure between Erie and Grove streets may be moved to another nearby location or put into another structure because of urban renewal projects.”
Eleven years later, changing the Pavonia Branch Library’s location became an intense topic of discussion as the city’s redevelopment agency moved forward on its condominium development project. In a March 14, 1985 editorial entitled, “Progress,” the Jersey Journal compared the looming removal of the branch to “urban suicide.” The editorial went on to ask, “For what is a city that offers residents only a place to sleep? What sense of community will there be if residents are forced to go elsewhere for necessary services and amenities?”
Local community activists joined in the Library fight to ensure a neighborhood branch. Though it was a struggle, the coalition secured commitments for a temporary home of the Pavonia Branch at P.S. 37. A small collection, consisting of paperbacks that were mostly children’s books, was housed in the rear of the auditorium of the school. Staff and children found it difficult to study or read in that location, so it became a lending collection. In the meantime, the community and Library officials were fighting for a new library. Plans for rehabilitating the old Wells Fargo building at 326 Eighth Street finally met with approval, costing $170,000.
On Monday, November 13, 1989, the new Pavonia Branch Library opened its doors in “of all places, a condominium unit. Library staff believes it is the first library in the country, possibly the world, to be located in a condo.” (Jersey City Reporter, November 12, 1989)
The Reporter continued: “With a new site library officials were given the chance to start from scratch. When units in the building at 326 Eighth St. were first sold, buyers were getting space only – the building had no interior walls.” Given that “clean slate,” architect Helena Ruman, the library’s architect of record, requested a “wish list” and designed an interior that specifically met the neighborhood library’s needs.
The renaissance of the Pavonia Branch Library continues, as recent shifts in population now presents the branch with an abundance of young adults in their 20s and 30s, who live in the condos that line the Hudson River Waterfront in the Newport section of Jersey City, as well as a solid senior clientele and mothers with pre-schoolers. Programs continue to adapt and grow with requests from those frequenting the library.
As a true neighborhood branch, the Pavonia Branch Library participates in the Hamilton Park Festival, held annually in June by the Hamilton Park Neighborhood Association and the Wells Fargo Condo Association. Since late 2004, the Pavonia Branch has sponsored a monthly book club as requested by a group of local residents. Children in the neighborhood are part of the Summer Reading Program that is offered annually systemwide. Story hours are also presented in the Fall and Spring, with parental participation, along with regular programs throughout the year. Monthly movies of interest to adults and children are a constant staple in addition to the other monthly programs offered, with summertime patron demand dictating that branch hours remain the same all year round.
Given its ongoing popularity and consistent patron interest, the Pavonia Branch Library has been upgraded from a Neighborhood to a Regional branch, leading to an increase in weekday evening hours and additional staffing.