POST TIME: West Palm Beach’s waterfront library was haven to some; eyesore to others

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Readers: Last month marked the 10th anniversary of the new West Palm Beach City Hall and library complex. Today we talk about the city libraries the new complex replaced. Especially the most recent one.

People saw it as either a bibliophile’s haven or an eyesore that blocked the magnificent view of the waterfront. Or both. Here’s more from our archives and from anarticles by colleague Sonja Isger and former colleague Ron Hayes:

First there was a reading room in the Union Congregational Church at Datura Street and Olive Avenue, which opened in 1894.

In 1900, a Palm Beach yachtsman named Commodore C.J. Clarke donated the town’s former yacht club building, which was carried by barge across Lake Worth, erected at the water’s edge and dubbed the Free Reading Room. Henry Flagler chipped in $100 and concerned citizens contributed used furniture and books, hoping to lure the rowdy construction workers building Flagler’s Palm Beach hotels out of the bars along Banyan Street, then also known as “Whiskey Street.”

In 1925, the Reading Room was replaced by the Memorial Library, a bit north. It honored the heroes of World War I. That Mediterranean Revival building was replaced in 1962 by the building in the waterfront. It was built for $364,382. That’s about $3 million in today’s dollars.

City commissioners had debated whether to find a new library site and sell the valuable waterfront land to commercial developers, but Clematis Street merchants fought the plan, and won. Not everyone liked the location. Before there was a library there was a park. It was the center of downtown, with concerts on the lawnand baseball games on the lawn.

Of course, some people were not welcome in the doors.

In 1949, city commissioners had appropriated $1,500 to establish a “branch library for negroes” at St. Patrick’s Parish Hall at Fourth Street and Sapodilla Avenue. Called the “Phillis Wheatley Branch,” it later moved to Tamarind Avenue and finally closed in 1966, when budget restrictions forced the commission to choose between closing the main library on Wednesdays or shuttering the black library completely.

In May 2009, bulldozers began razing the old city library. It was replaced by a great lawn, with a mostly unobstructed view of the water.

Post Time appears in print every Thursday in Neighborhood Post. Submit your questions to Post Time, The Palm Beach Post, 2751 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach, FL 33405. Include your full name and hometown. Call 561-820-4418. EK@pbpost.com. Sorry; no personal replies.

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