Towering stacks of library books blamed for Baron's mansion damage
Updated 12:22 pm, Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Stacks upon stacks of Westport Library books stored at Golden Shadows, the former residence of Baron Walter von Langendorff on the town-owned property now known as Baron's South, have damaged the structure.
Among the problems caused to the former mansion by the heavy accumulation of stored materials is the collapse of the dining room floor, according to John Suggs, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 5.
For the past 15 years, books have been stored in the brick structure, Suggs said. He said the library initially got approval from then-First Selectman Diane Farrell to store books in one room of the mansion, but over the years, he added, the storage has taken over the entire place.
"Every room, including the bath tubs, are filled with books," said Suggs, a member of the RTM's Library, Museum and Art Committee.
Suggs made a motion during the RTM budget meeting on May 4 to trim the library's budget by $15,000 to pay for the damages.
But that motion was defeated with 32 members opposed, one (Suggs) in favor and one abstention. At that time, RTM member Rick Weber, District 9, said the budget meeting "should not be hijacked" by debate on the Golden Shadows issue. "We should deal with it at another time," Weber said.
That time has come, said Suggs.
He said repairs should be funded "by the library donors and supporters and not the town taxpayers." He said that at the library's "Booked for the Evening" fundraiser, the Board of Trustees should have asked "the largest and biggest donors to pay for the damage that was caused."
"My hope is that the library will do the right thing," Suggs added.
Until that time, Suggs said he will request funding from the Board of Finance to repair the damage, which he estimates could be about $15,000.
At that same RTM meeting, Jonathan Cunitz, a library trustee, said that rather than cutting the library's allocation to pay for repairs, the RTM should consider approving about $50,000 to pay for storing the library materials elsewhere, rather than the mansion.
And, he noted, the building "is not being used for any other purpose" and is "not planned for any other purpose right now."
"So there's no reason the library needs to move out," Cunitz said. "Or for that matter to have our budget cut for some accumulated damage to a facility that's been ignored by the town for many years."
Suggs began looking into the matter several months ago after receiving a complaint from a constituent about the possibility that the library has been dumping books in its trash bin. "From there, we discovered this problem," he said.
Morley Boyd, a local preservationist who spoke at the RTM session, said he had reached out to a licensed structural engineer from Westport to access the damage at Golden Shadows.
"As it happens, he'd been similarly consulted by the library 15 years ago concerning storing books there and provided firm guidelines on the matter of loading" materials there, Boyd said.
"Because this is a residential building and, therefore not designed to support the loads associated with commercial storage, he recommended that the stacking of books should never exceed two feet in height and the storage boxes should only be on the very edge of the rooms," he said.
He said that the engineer was also contacted after the dining room floor partially collapsed. "His inspection of the premises determined that, in direct contravention to his previous advice, books had been stacked to the ceiling," Boyd added.
Boyd was at the mansion recently and said "in several rooms it was clear that the books have not only been stacked to about five feet in height or more, but they were not limited to the space by the outer walls."
In fact, he said, "one room appears to have been entirely filled in with books stacked to eye level."
"We are investigating options and looking for another space to store them," said Marcia Logan, the Westport Library's communications coordinator. "Ideally, the books should be here, but we just don't have space at the library."
She said "a new library with a lot of storage space would solve the problem."
Logan also said library staff is "moving the books around inside" Golden Shadows making sure they aren't piled high and only to where the floor is more sturdy.
They are also making sure to "comply with all building codes."
Suggs also noted that the property was "never zoned for warehousing" and has been "in violation for 15 years and it hasn't been enforced."
Boyd agreed, noting that the present use of the building as a storage facility "is not a permitted use," either when the property was zoned residential AA or in the recently-approved DOSRD2 (dedicated open space and recreation district) designation.
Boyd said he filed a formal complaint with zoning officials last week over the storage issue at Golden Shadows.