PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.
Librarians keep huge files of information because we are simply “information people.” We are notorious in this age of technology for keeping both a paper copy and some sort of electronic copy, just in case.
I was trying to manage some of the old files about the Main Library building, none of which are electronic, and became fascinated with the roofing problems that existed during the first 50 years of the building’s existence.
Within the first month of the building being open in 1902, two small roof leaks were reported, and the contractor from Allegheny City returned and fixed both.
The original roof was heavy clay tiles, typical for the era and excellent for roofs that are highly visible when viewing the building.
Within a decade, more severe leaks had developed where the roof met the parapet walls (the brick walls at the end of the roof) to the point that interior walls were badly stained from the leaks.
This was resolved by changing the copper flashing with something that extended further under the clay tiles.
Roofing discussions ended for many years, while discussions turned to the boiler that was not producing sufficient steam for heating, another topic for another column.
By 1930, the clay tile pointed roof of the tower had started to deteriorate and stains appeared on the stone tower, followed by occasional bricks and stone pieces falling off the tower and dropping onto the roof, breaking the clay tiles.
During World War II, so many of the clay tiles had been broken that it was decided to remove the ones around the tower and replace the area with “rubberoid rolled roofing” which could better handle the dropping debris.
The leaks were so bad by 1948 that one of the large paintings that hang in the library reading rooms was found “stuck” to the wall as water quietly leaked down the wall.
Plans for an addition to the library building were scuttled to divert funds to roof repairs.
The Carnegie Foundation was contacted to see if they could help with the roof problem, as Andrew Carnegie had funded construction in 1902, but the Foundation had ended the library program with the donor’s death in 1919.
Serious discussion took place about leaving the beloved building, or constructing a new building in the yard in front of the existing building.
By 1955, the library had saved enough money for a new roof the next year, so one final “tar job” was done trying to plug the holes to make it last into the construction season of 1956.
At a cost equivalent to half the annual library budget, the entire roof was replaced with a new slate roof, and the top 35 ft. of the tower was removed in a project extending over most of the summer.
By October, the library roof wasn’t leaking for the first time in 25 years. Plaster repairs to the interior walls continued for many years afterward.
Today, all that remains are photos of the former tower top, and part of one clay tile that sits on a shelf in my office.
The current slate roof works well with an occasional repair to broken or missing slate, and a cleaning of the huge gutters.
Years ago, I discussed the roof project with someone who had served on the Library Board at that time. She said it was frustrating to deal with a leaking roof, and the amount of money required to ultimately fixing it.
She was sorry to see the top of the tower removed, but historic preservation was unknown in the 1950s and it was unknown if the tower could even be fixed with its deterioration.
We have no construction photos of the Main Library building, but I assume that wooden scaffolding was constructed to build the tower. Restoring the tower today would likely be cost prohibitive.
So, enjoy the library in its state of preservation, and remember all of the people who and passed through the building in its 110 year history.