Rescuing ‘the castle’ on Minneapolis’ North Side

She would have been proud of the effort to rescue the North Side’s very own castle on Emerson Avenue.

Gratia Countryman did not build the turreted red-brick building that housed the city’s first neighborhood library; it opened in 1894, 10 years before she took charge of the Minneapolis Public Library. But Countryman nurtured the North Branch, known affectionately as “the castle,” and oversaw its expansion during her tenure as the city’s chief librarian, which lasted until 1936.

Countryman ran an important community agency at a time when few women served in such a highly visible public position. A tireless advocate for her cause, she helped build the city’s library system during a career that spanned three decades. In those years, she pioneered new forms of library services including the city’s first bookmobile, which was housed at the North Branch.

At the height of the Great Depression, when city leaders threatened to close all city libraries during the summer months because of budget cuts, she rallied community support for increased city funding so that unemployed men and women could continue to use the libraries and search for work in the help-wanted ads.
Closed in the 1970s
Well beyond Countryman’s era, the North Branch Library continued to be an important neighborhood gathering place until it closed in the 1970s. Underutilized and vacant, off and on in recent years, the historic property was purchased by a local community development group, Emerge, in 2009. The nonprofit organization intends to adapt the North Side landmark for a new use as a career and technology center, serving the surrounding community, which is predominantly African-American.

Emerge is close to reaching its fund-raising goal of $4.8 million, the amount needed to restore the North Branch and construct a new community center within the building’s century-old walls. Lisa Kugler, the organization’s development consultant, said support for the new center is coming from a variety of private and public sources, some of which are targeted at historic preservation.

“It has been a challenge to coordinate our various funding sources, but we are making progress is meeting that challenge,” she said.

The North Branch is important from a historical perspective, noted Emerge’s architectural advisor, Bob Mack. He explained that the 1894 building was the first open-shelf library in the country. “People could come in here and keep browsing until they found a book that they wanted to check out. That was quite a new idea for its time,” Mack said.

Romanesque Revival style
The library was built in the Romanesque Revival style, which was popular in the 1890s. That style, with heavy masonry arches and towers, is best exemplified by Minneapolis City Hall, built during the same era. Mack explained that the library’s architect borrowed Romanesque Revival motifs but applied them with a softer touch not found in other more monumental buildings of that period. “This building says ‘Come in a make yourself at home,’ not ‘Look at how big and powerful I am.'”

Mack said the building’s exterior will be restored to its late 19th century appearance with the addition of such modern features as a handicapped-accessible entrance. Inside, the new center’s furnishings and fixtures will be modern. “Those need to express the center’s contemporary function.  Historicism, for its own sake, is not appropriate here,” Mack said.

“The North Branch as a structure may be nearly 120 years old, but our new center will have an important 21st century mission — to use modern technology to promote economic justice for people of this community,” noted Mike Wynne, Emerge’s CEO.   “Today, black unemployment is three times that of for whites, the highest economic disparity of any region in the country. We think we can play a constructive role by using this historic building to help narrow that gap. Computer and software skills are more important than ever. Almost every occupation requires some level of skills in this area.

“Only 47 percent of households on North Side have a computer at home, so we have a large digital divide that must be bridged. We will provide technology training here at our new center and open computer access for young people and adults.”

Wynne added, “Gratia saw the library as a place where the people of Minneapolis could seek intellectual and economic advancement for themselves and their families. She advocated for the people of this community during difficult times.

“Today, we are following in her footsteps. We are using this historic building for that same purpose — to provide economic opportunities for our community during these challenging times in the 21st century.”

Written by Iric Nathanson
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