Historic library set for long dark spell

Historic library set for long dark spell

By John Kanelis

What once served as an assembly hall and a place for women to freshen up during their downtown Amarillo shopping spells sits dark.

The old library on the Potter County Courthouse Square might get the lights turned on. Then again, it might not.

The library was built in 1922. It ran through several incarnations.

The term "Assembly Hall" is engraved on the building's north exterior wall. That's because it served that purpose at one time, according to Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner, who said that the library building also served as a meeting place for the County Commissioners Court. "That was way before (former County Judge) Arthur Ware's time and, of course, before my time," Tanner said.

The problem with the old library building, which sits on the southwest corner of the courthouse square, at Sixth Avenue and Taylor Street, is making it compliant with federal law.

The Americans with Disabilities Act stands in the way of the building being reoccupied full time, Tanner said, and opened up for public use. "It just costs too much money to make it ADA compliant," she said, adding that Potter County has several other projects under way – or soon to be under way – that take priority.

ADA requires all public-access buildings – especially those owned by government entities – to provide full access for all who use it, regardless of their physical disabilities. It was signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush.

Nick Ward, assistant facilities director for Potter County for the past 11 years, said the cost of making the building ADA compliant is too steep. "The first thing, I guess, would be to install ramps and to make the doors wider," Ward said. "When the building was built in the 1920s, they didn't care how big you were or what shape you were," he said. "All the doors are 32 or 36 inches wide," Ward added.

"All the doorknobs would need to be changed," he said, but added that the most significant cost would be to install a hydraulic elevator, given that the building has two floors above ground.

"The benefit to the public, when we're spending the public's money on this," Ward said, "well … I guess it's hard to justify."

The building also served as a law library, Tanner said, with shelve stocked with statute books that county lawyers could use to research pertinent state law.

Others have expressed interest in the building, according to Tanner. She said Amarillo National Bank "once had an interest in it. ANB talked to Arthur (Ware) about it." But she said she is unsure of how those conversations ended.

The county is embarking on some serious construction projects to be completed in the near and long term, Tanner said, and she indicated that County Facilities Director Mike Head – who used the library while the county courthouse was being renovated – might be going back into the building as the additional work gets cranked up.

Ward said Head "does have an office in the building that he uses from time to time. Mike kind of uses it as a construction office."

"We've got a lot of other projects going," Tanner said, ticking off the Sheriff's Office Administration Building that will be built downtown. "It's not a jail and I want people to know that," she said, citing the need for a new office for Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas.

"The admin building will be done first," Tanner said.

The next big project will be the District Courts Building, across the street from the County Courthouse, Tanner said. "That's going to be done years down the road," she said.

Head, who was vacationing out of town and could not be contacted, is the "expert on the history of this building," said Tanner.

Tanner said that Head well might lay his blueprints out all over the library's interior, just as he did during the courthouse remodeling. "He was very involved in that effort," she said, and she expects Head to be equally involved as the county proceeds with its future construction.

As for the old library structure, consider this bit of information: It was built in the early 1920s at a cost of $25,000. It contained a living room, a lunch room, an assembly hall and was staffed by a matron who helped the women relax, enabling them to take a break from their shopping trips through downtown Amarillo.

"It was a place," Tanner said, "where women could kick off their heels and freshen up."