DARTMOUTH — As the town waits for bids to arrive in response to a trio of Requests For Proposals for the purchase or lease of the Old Southworth Library on Elm Street, a growing coalition of community members is trying to keep the building as town property.
The foremost of the diverse group of advocates for the lease of the property is a newly formed nonprofit called SOS — Save Old Southworth. They are proposing to negotiate a long-term lease with the town to use the building as a public cultural and community center, hosting art exhibits, poetry readings, historical exhibits and other events.
Enid Silva, Dartmouth High School Alumni Association president and longtime town meeting member, a spokeswoman for the group, said the advocacy committee drafted her for membership because she was the most outspoken opponent to selling the building the last time a possible sale came up at a Dartmouth town meeting.
During a tour of the old library last week, Silva and other SOS members pledged to have a viable proposal for a lease to their nonprofit. What they fear most is that the Select Board might instead decide to pursue option one in the range of RFP choices, a possible sale to a private party.
The RFP terms for a private sale seek a minimum purchase price of $275,000 for the 1,386-square-foot building, sitting on a 4,551-square-foot lot at the corner of Elm and Prospect Streets. The property is zoned General Residence, and any sale comes with a deed restriction protecting the unique appearance of the 1889 stone façade.
With only two ground-floor rooms and a single bath, the potential for the library’s conversion to a funky private residence, perhaps a studio apartment, is always a possibility. The last tenant, Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust, leased the building for its headquarters before moving to a new facility on Chase Road.
“The first criteria is to save the building” from a quick sale, SOS member Kathleen DelSordo said. “The second is to put it to good use for the community.”
DelSordo said she understands the town wants to shed the maintenance and liability expenses of the old library, but feels its history and appeal are too special for the community to cast aside.
The group is getting support for its campaign from a variety of sources, according to Silva. Elm Street architect James Thomas is one of those sources, as he is also actively advocating for the retention and rehabilitation of the 19th-century building, and re-purposing it for public use once again.
He is encouraging SOS to file a lease proposal, feeling that the growing coalition seeking to block the sale of the building indicates plenty of community support for keeping the old library. He said he would write to the Select Board, urging it to delay consideration of any sales until a firm re-use plan could be developed by the coalition.
“Its value to the town is significant,” Thomas told the Dartmouth Historical & Arts Society board of directors at a recent meeting. The library is the only standing example of that unique brand of Romanesque architecture left in town, he told the historic preservation advocates.
Thomas said he believes that Massachusetts Restoration Fund and state Cultural Council facilities grant funding could be obtained to help pay for rehab and re-purposing plans, and possibly Community Preservation Act monies as well, he said at the DHAS meeting. The society holds temporary custody and care of the town-owned Russells Mills Library on a similar long-term lease.
After some discussion of the matter, the DHAS directors voted to endorse the idea of a town lease to a nonprofit such as SOS, as opposed to a sale to a private party, and pledged their financial support to aid the efforts of the preservation group. At least four of those directors took Friday’s tour to check out the architecture and historic features.
The Old Dartmouth Historical Society has also offered its support for the campaign to save the building, Silva said. Even if the Select Board decides to accept a good purchase offer, the ultimate decision whether to keep or sell the building rests with town meeting members, she noted.
— Editor's note: Chronicle Correspondent Robert Barboza is a member of the Dartmouth Historical and Arts Society board of directors.