Reporter's Notebook: One last hurrah for the old library

2013-12-14T00:00:00Z 2013-12-27T16:55:14Z Reporter's Notebook: One last hurrah for the old libraryBy ED KEMMICK ekemmick@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Now that the old library is closed, but before it is demolished, can I say a few words in defense of the much-maligned, unlovely concrete monolith?

You can't blame the building because somebody decided to convert it into a library. It was constructed as a hardware showroom and warehouse, an absolutely unpretentious four-story box made of steel, concrete, glass and brick.

It felt like a bomb shelter, especially in the basement, and at one time it was officially designated as a civil defense shelter. Among the leftovers being auctioned off as the move is made to the new library are some of the metal canisters that once held stores of emergency food and water.

When it was converted to a library in 1969, it didn't even acquire its own name. It simply borrowed the Parmly Billings Library name bestowed on the city's first library, a beautifully ornamented Romanesque castle built on Montana Avenue in 1901.

The city's third library, located within spitting distance of the former warehouse and scheduled to open Jan. 6, has already been renamed the Billings Public Library.

Bill Cochran, the library director since 1990, couldn't quite bring himself to express any affection for the existing library.

"I don't dislike it," he said, damnation by way of faint praise if ever there was an instance of it. But then he added, "It was a good investment."

Bang for the buck

And that's the main thing I would say in its defense — it was a hell of an investment. It was purchased for $750,000 and renovated for less than $200,000. Even in 1969, $200,000 wasn't much money. It's unlikely that anything but a hardware warehouse would have been solid enough to support so many books with so little renovation.

But the library had something beyond its utilitarian benefits. I grew fond of the building in the same way I grew to like the old Granny's Attic on Minnesota Avenue. That antique store was originally built as a furniture warehouse and showroom and was a labyrinth of rooms, hidden chambers, obscure corridors and multiple stairwells.

The Parmly had a bit of that air of secret places about it, and in my 18 years of reporting here at The Gazette I have had reason to penetrate most of them at one time or another.

The basement was home to the Montana Last Copy Fiction Depository, where old books went for long naps. Libraries from around the state sent low-circulation books there so that at least one copy of each title would be preserved and available for circulation.

It was deathly quiet and dimly lit, like one of those archives in a Hollywood thriller where the intrepid researcher finally finds the document that solves a murder or cracks a conspiracy.

The first and second floors were those used by the public, home to the collection of books and other materials, the children's and teen rooms, the public computers, the racks of newspapers and magazines and the Genealogy Room, maintained by the Yellowstone Genealogy Forum.

The second floor also held the Montana Room, that somewhat disordered but invaluable collection of books, documents, maps, photos and newspaper clippings. I wrote a lot of stories that began in that room, with materials fanned out over a glass-topped oak table.

Never-ending project

Behind those public-access areas on the first and second floors was a rabbit's warren of work areas where the business of the library was conducted. All of those behind-the-scenes offices had a haphazard, jerry-rigged feeling about them, as if the task of converting a warehouse to a library was never quite finished.

The third floor was not connected to the heating and cooling system and remained vacant for 44 years. Among many other uses, however, it became the site of the Friends of the Library's annual book sale, where I must have spent hundreds of hours over the years.

On the fourth floor, at one time or another, were the offices of many city departments, including the library administration, parks and recreation, public works and planning.

I don't think there was an office up there I didn't visit in the course of my reporting duties, and I'm sure I spent too much time in the two conference rooms on the fourth floor, listening to some board or committee drone on for hours.

I even visited the little glassed-in penthouse on the roof a few times. Cochran said it apparently began as an apartment occupied by the owners of the warehouse, and in later years it was a break room for city employees.

But there is much more than those memories. I haven't even mentioned how much time I spent there with my three daughters. Like tens of thousands of other parents in this part of the world, I considered that concrete box a bottomless resource.

My daughters grew familiar with computers there before we had one at home, checked out books by the hundreds, listened to stories, watched movies, socialized with other kids, and in general began their apprenticeship as young citizens.

I don't believe my daughters knew the old Parmly had once been a warehouse. They thought of it as a refuge and a gathering place, a home away from home and a cabinet of wonders.

So, as its date with the wrecking ball draws near, I will think of it mainly as a storehouse of varied and wonderful memories.

And I won't envy the people who have to knock it down.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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