Newbern Library fills a community void in Alabama’s Hale County

Newbern Library fills a community void in Alabama’s Hale County
Newbern Library fills a void in Alabama's Black Belt and Hale County. (Timothy Hursley)

Now that it’s a library, the old bank building in Newbern is brighter, lighter and longer than it had been in more than 110 years. But since the graying brick structure reopened late last year, it has begun fulfilling its new purpose as a library and a center for information.

The more than 7,000 books are slowly being cataloged. Groups of library volunteers are getting organized. And the library is developing programs for children and adults.

“Really, opening a library is a massive task,” said Frances Sullivan, who was vice president of the Newbern Library board until she stepped down at the end of her term in December.

Many people – such as the Walthall family, which donated the building, Auburn University students and others – worked to create the new library, and many more will contribute to its success, she said. “We are still finding out what the community needs. But the fact that we opened the doors is for me a miracle.”

The Newbern Library is the latest completed project of Auburn’s Rural Studio, in which fifth-year architecture students immerse themselves in planning, designing and building a structure. More than 150 projects have come out of the program, which began in 1993.

The Rural Studio headquarters are located just a few miles south of the library on Alabama Highway 61. Sullivan, who had been the county’s postmaster from 1993 until she retired in 2011, saw a need and had been pushing for a library for years. Sunshine High School’s library filled the gap for a while, but because of consolidation the school closed its doors last spring.

There were only three libraries in Hale County, and never one in Newbern. Those who needed to go to a library had to go to Demopolis or Greensboro, but Carolyn Hemstreet, library director for the Hale County Library in Greensboro, said she rarely saw patrons visit from Newbern. A lack of transportation, she said, is part of the reason.

Hemstreet had a hand in cataloging books and talked to the Rural Studio students. They studied Hale County Library as they planned the Newbern Library.

“I know they did a lot of planning,” she said. “I was impressed how they put together what they wanted to do, and created a very attractive, pleasant space.”

The space is bright, modern, functional and open. And, in the Rural Studio tradition, what could be preserved was preserved.

“Everything they could reuse they did,” Sullivan said. “The building has been iconic. The function has changed, but the form has remained true. We didn’t want to make it look modern. It was more of a repurposing than a rebuilding.”

So, the wood from the teller’s counter, also known as the teller’s line, was used to fashion the librarian’s desk. Bricks from the bank’s vault were used to enclose a patio behind the building. And the ornate vault door was moved to the front of the building, visible through one of two large glass windows.

That’s Will Gregory’s favorite part.

The 26-year-old Dothan native was one of the four Auburn students who worked on the library project.

Working directly with clients, working within lean budgets and being responsible for planning and building the structure gave him useful experience.

The Rural Studio prepared Gregory for his current job at Lang Architecture in New York.

“I’m able to think about how things go together and anticipate problems carpenters might encounter,” he said.

Related Stories