Northland library branch mixes the old with the new

The future is meeting the past, architecturally, in Clay County.

A new branch library building — crescent-shaped and sheathed in a white limestone-like veneer — is being built right up to the foundation of a two-story, red-brick, white-columned pre-Civil War mansion.

The completed facility will serve as the Mid-Continent Public Library’s new Woodneath Branch in the Shoal Creek district of Kansas City, North.

Brad Wolf, Kansas City’s historic preservation officer, calls the coupling of then and now “creative.”

Completed in 1856, the home today stands as the only Northland site listed in four historic registers: federal, state, city and county. The project, Wolf added, preserves the aging mansion as well as its surrounding 32 acres, framed on all sides by development.

Still, one historian laments the project.

“There are just not many examples remaining of what Woodneath was: a rural farmstead that represented the Southern culture that once existed in Clay County,” said Gary Fuenfhausen, president of the Little Dixie Heritage Foundation.

Library district officials maintain the $21.6 million project represents an imaginative use and a dramatic setting for library patrons. They’ll have a high-tech “story-sharing center” housed in the old mansion, plus landscaped surroundings that should eventually include a natural amphitheater and walking trails.

They also are convinced that the home, however historic, would not have remained upright without their intervention.

“I fully believe that if the library district had not stepped up, the house would have just crumbled to the ground in around five years,” said library district director Steve Potter.

A tour of the mansion at 8900 N.E. Flintlock Road reveals peeling wallpaper, unstable floorboards and water stains. The library district has added a new roof and gutters and has stabilized the home’s three chimneys.

A winding first-floor staircase suggests a Missouri Tara.

Outside, the house provides a vivid glimpse of 19th century splendor. Architects designing the new branch selected its bright facade material to complement the Greek Revival mansion’s red brick.

“The design shows deference to the home and visually makes it pop,” Potter said.

The district’s planned “story-sharing center,” where patrons will write and distribute their work on paper, videotape or MP3 audio files, is planned for the renovated home.

“Libraries have been mostly about being able to consume a story,” said Jim Staley, district marketing and communications director. “This will give you a chance to participate in the front end of the story process.”

The district is covering about $13.3 million of the project. A campaign to raise the remaining $8.3 million, to fund the landscaping and home renovation, is scheduled.

But ambitious landscaping plans are likely to compromise any artifacts that could illuminate the home’s history, Fuenfhausen said.

“And every time we lose a site like this, a lot of information is lost forever,” he said.

Census documents compiled before the Civil War, Potter said, documented slaves living on the site. But a recent archaeological survey turned up no evidence of that legacy.

Artifacts recovered during the current construction include a candle mold and an oversized pair of shears. Those and other items eventually will be displayed in the new branch.

The new 35,000-square-foot structure will represent the district’s most technologically advanced facility. Its computer lab will be the district’s largest, and an automated book-sorting system will serve as an attraction in itself, Staley said.

A space devoted to children’s stories has been designed with a barn-shaped roof and faux wooden beams.

The library will be dedicated in late spring or early summer.

On a recent afternoon, Potter invited a visitor to peer inside the thin, inches-wide space where workers connected the old mansion and new library.

The sight: clear sky.

The two buildings are not being permanently attached. The Landmarks Commission of Kansas City recommended that the space between the two structures not be sealed permanently, but with a network of rubber gaskets.

One reason: It would be challenging to connect cleanly with the uneven brick face of the 1856 home, Wolf said.

Second: If sentiment ever shifts on the wisdom of permanently connecting a 2013 library to an 1856 house, at least the latter will not have been compromised.