Bridgeton Free Public Library
150 East Commerce Street, Bridgeton, Cumberland County
Save the Library!
9/2010: Save the Library!'s hard work is paying off. Repair and repointing of the masonry in the Bridgeton Free Public Library's east wall was completed during September, funded entirely by contributions to Save the Library! The group continues to work to raise $100,000 in matching funds for the New Jersey Historic Trust Planning Grant for which the group applied last year.
5/2011: The Bridgeton Free Public Library has been recommended for a $150,000 capital preservation grant from the Garden State Preservation Trust Fund. The NJ Historic Trust announced the recommendation in April. The Bridgeton Free Public Library is one of 58 historic resources on the current recommendations list. The proposed grant awards were ratified by the GSPT during the first week of May, and now must move through the legislature before final approval by the governor.
The Bridgeton Free Public Library is composed of two major sections, the historic building constructed in two phases in 1816 and 1856, and an annex built in 1967. The older building is modest but distinctive building that retains its historic 19th century character. This was the original home of Cumberland Bank, founded in 1816. In 1866, the bank moved to a new facility. The Bridgeton Library Association purchased the vacant bank building in 1901 to house its subscription library collection; the city of Bridgeton took possession of the property in 1922, establishing the Bridgeton Free Public Library.
As with the exterior, many distinctive interior architectural features remaining, including the historic stairway, decorative plaster cornice, mantel and fireplace in the second floor meeting room and original window and door surrounds with transoms.
The Bridgeton Free Public Library serves a vital role in its local community. The library is staffed and supported by city funding. This neighborhood institution serves Bridgeton’s diverse population of first and second generation immigrants, migrant workers and long-time residents, many of whom live in the deteriorated yet preserved housing stock of the Bridgeton Historic District, the largest historic district in New Jersey. The historic library is a contributing element of the Bridgeton Historic District, and as such, the library’s significance for both the services it provides and its presence in and maintenance of a landmark of downtown Bridgeton, is indisputable.
It is a model of successful stewardship in an extremely significant, yet underappreciated and poorly funded, historic district. This library is exactly the type of preservation model that communities like Bridgeton most need to retain.
The struggles of the Bridgeton Free Public Library to maintain a level of service for the community are typical of many municipalities, large and small, throughout the state. Budget cutbacks have reduced financial support for branch libraries, threatening the commitment to servicing those neighborhoods that are most in need of the resources and services the libraries provide. Bridgeton, in particular, has suffered from loss of jobs and residents, leaving the city without sufficient tax funds to continue to support public amenities.
Limited funding also affects the long-term care and maintenance of physical structures under municipal care. In Bridgeton’s case, when the historic section of the library was suffering damage from a leaking roof, Save the Library! was formed in 2008 as a grassroots fundraising and advocacy committee. In one year, it raised sufficient funds to replace the damaged roof with a temporary replacement. However, maintenance is a ongoing process for which further funding is imperative.
Save the Library! seeks to preserve the historic former bank portion of the library, to see its historic character better utilized and appreciated by the community, as well as to set a positive example of preservation within the historic district. As a first step, the group successfully applied for grant funds from the Garden State Historic Preservation Trust Fund (administered by the New Jersey Historic Trust) toward the preparation of a preservation plan for the historic building. The planning document will help the city and friends group identify the priority repair and restoration issues and make recommendations for preservation and utilizing the historic building as an active part of the library and the community.
Yet the question remains: from where will the funds for the library budget and for the preservation and programming of its historic building come?
Preservation New Jersey recognizes the tremendous pressure under which our State’s municipalities are challenged to maintain their physical resources and continue to provide needed services to their communities. Bridgeton’s problem is indicative of the overall challenge of prioritizing historic preservation in communities with extremely limited resources. With cooperation and coordination between the Save the Library!, the City of Bridgeton, and Bridgeton residents, the preservation of this historic resource as an integral part of the community library can serve as a model of the need for public and private investments, in this economy more than ever, to integrate civic pride, public involvement and historic preservation into exemplary community planning.
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