BRADLEY BEACH — The culmination of a 25-year effort to make the Bradley Beach Public Library accessible to all patrons was hailed as more than just a construction project this past weekend.
“It’s a public library,” said Library Director Janet Torsney. “In my opinion, it’s the most democratic place in the United States. It’s funded by the taxpayer so everyone should be able to get in to every program.
“We really had a barrier with that and we don’t anymore so I just feel we can serve everyone in our community now. It’s revolutionary, I think, and it will be for generations.”
Mayor Gary Engelstad, who cut the ceremonial ribbon to the library’s new accessible wing at a rededication ceremony on Sunday, was no less effusive about its significance.
“Without a doubt, the library is the heartbeat of our town,” the mayor said. “It’s the community center. It’s the cultural center. It’s the educational center wrapped in one.”
The library had been closed for two weeks prior to the event, as finishing touches were put on a six-month- long project that had been 25 years in the making.
The project was the first renovation in the library’s 90-year history.
“We were calling this weekend our ‘second chapter,’ ” said Ms. Torsney, library director since 2011.
The afternoon event was moved inside due to the weather forecast, but that didn’t stop approximately 180 residents from coming out to be a part of it.
“It was a phenomenal turnout, but the highlight for me was seeing people with disabilities or walkers able to access our library for the first time ever,” Mayor Engelstad said. “It was a very emotional moment that they now have access where before they didn’t.”
The new structure, which cost more than $900,000 to build, features a handicap accessible entrance ramp located on Hammond Avenue. It leads directly to a new staircase — one that consists of even deeper steps and wider surface area, Ms. Torsney said.
The wing adds 1,540 square-feet of space to the library, 770 feet for each of its two floors.
The new wing also has an elevator that reaches all floors, new common areas and a handicap accessible bathroom.
The old staircase next to the front entrance was too steep, too narrow and the landings had different heights, making it difficult for guests to travel up and down.
In keeping with what officials proudly describe as a community-wide initiative, the wing has a tribute wall that honors those who donated to the project or who had donations made in their memory.
According to Ms. Torsney, the wall includes some 150 bricks named “either in memory of people or in honor of people.”
The donations were raised with the help of the Friends of the Bradley Beach Public Library, the nonprofit charitable arm of the library. In total, residents and the group raised “about $100,000 overall,” Ms. Torsney said.
“It was great. [The group] did walkathons, annual letters, psychic fairs, jewelry sales, all kinds of things,” she said. “Many of the people who came [on Sunday] had donated in one way or another, so we were really glad to honor them.
“I’m so excited. People seemed to really like the addition,” she said. “I was just so touched to see people going up and down the elevator who had been struggling up the stairs or had not been able to come to the library. We have some events downstairs that people just couldn’t participate in because they couldn’t handle the stairs. They were so happy.”
Both Ms. Torsney and Mayor Engelstad cited the broader implications of thesix-month long endeavor for the community.
“[The elevator] is a simple thing now,” she said, “but it’s such a big deal because a public library obviously should be accessible in every way, right? Everyone is equal. It’s a service to the town and it’s a beautiful thing.”
LONG IN development
Ground was broken on the addition in July of 2016. But Ms. Torsney has been working on the renovation since becoming library director in 2011, with roughly five more years of effort by the board, friends and staff.
“People have been working on an accessibility addition here for up to 25 years,” she said. “It’s been the dream of everyone at the library because it has been very difficult to get in and around the building.
In 2013, Ms. Torsney said, “The borough bonded for $900,000 and once they did that, things moved pretty quickly.”
Mills & Schnoering was the architecture firm the library used.
“They had done the original accessibility study for us and that was in 2012,” she said, adding that the project was “on time and under budget.”
The library agreed to pay the first two years of debt servicing at $200,000, in order to move the project along and has been fundraising for several years to cover the cost.
However, the library officially paid off its debt to the borough on Oct. 1, 2016 with a payment in the amount of $80,000, according to Ms. Torsney.
According to the “Historic Walk Through Bradley Beach,” which is accessible on the library’s website, its origins date back to 1913, 14 years prior to the building’s dedication in 1927.
The Women’s Improvement League went door-to-door asking for new and used books to start a library collection in 1913.
In its first year, the library was housed in a room inside Bradley Beach Elementary School but, in 1914, the borough took over control and transferred the book collection to a building on the northeast corner of Brinley Avenue.
According to the page, the library was given a grant of land on the corner of 4th and Hammond avenues by James Bradley in 1918, but it took nearly 10 years to raise the funds needed for construction. The library was completed in 1927.
In 2013, the library was named to the National and New Jersey Registers of Historic Places.
This year the library is celebrating its 90th anniversary. During 2016, it welcomed nearly 40,000 guests.
“There was worry a couple of years ago that libraries would lose their purpose because of everything being available online,” Mayor Engelstad said. “But for our library, the exact opposite is happening. The utilization is growing rapidly. It’s by far the highlight of my 13 years in public office.”
Remarking on this first renovation in nearly a century of history, Ms. Torsney said, “I don’t think there will need to be more!”
“We have the room. We have the spaces. I think we’re really prepared for the future.”