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Pittsburgh's Children's Museum considers $20M makeover of former Carnegie Library branch

| Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 12:02 a.m.
Steven Adams | Tribune-Review
The clock tower of the old Allegheny City branch of the Carnegie Library on Pittsburgh's North Side, Wednesday, March 11, 2015.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Brielle Wiles, 8 works on homework as her brother Brayden Wiles, 3 plays at Buhl Community Park at Allegheny Square, Thursday. The clock tower at the Allegheny Regional Branch of the Carnegie Library is seen in the background.

The former Allegheny branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh could get a $20 million makeover as a venue for older youths.

The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh is considering whether to annex the 1890s-era library, which has been empty since lightning decimated its clock tower and the library system deemed the 45,000-square-foot facility too costly to keep.

Jane Werner, executive director of the museum, said this week that the museum's attendance mushroomed to 267,000 last year, up from 86,000 a decade ago when its Lantern Building opened in the North Side. Starting new programming could help continue the growth, she said.

Architect John Radelet is studying the feasibility and cost of repairing the old library.

“We don't want to overpromise because if we find the building is too expensive to run, we have to be very realistic about it,” Werner said.

Museum Deputy Director Chris Siefert estimates the renovation would cost more than $20 million — exceeding the museum's endowment. But not to worry, Siefert said: The museum has raised $2 million for the remodeling and has a “track record of success” with large projects.

In Allegheny Center, the library building is still home to the New Hazlett Theater and a city senior center. The landmark is one of the first of thousands of libraries constructed around the world in the late 19th and early 20th century with donations from Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

Glenn Walsh, a preservationist who attended a tour of the building this month, said the library space appeared untouched since 2006. He delighted at the ringing of the building's clock tower bells, which Siefert said dated to the 1890s and hadn't resounded for decades.

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation helped collect more than 7,000 signatures to prevent the city from tearing down the library.

The museum is partnering with community organizations that would be part of every phase of development and eventually occupy the building. Once the core and shell are in operating order, partners would be responsible for any special modifications to their allotted interior areas, Siefert said.

Museum officials met two weeks ago with community residents to discuss the project. “It's like a touchstone for the community,” Werner said. “It means so much to them.”If the museum decides to go forward, it would move into the library's first floor after raising $5.5 million to $7.5 million for the first phase of work. Siefert anticipates updating the building's mechanical systems to make it less expensive to operate and accessible for people with disabilities.

The city would continue to own the building, and the museum would pay for the renovation and upkeep in exchange for a long-term, no-cost lease. However, remodeling the facility isn't what Siefert is most concerned about.

“In this project, developing the programing is more challenging than in others, taking us out of our comfort zone,” Siefert said, “It is a nice challenge, and we think we are up to it.”

Elizabeth Daley is a freelance writer. Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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