BOISE — The carpet may be tired, the electrical system outdated and the closed-off floor plan a relic of the 1980s, but when Shawn Swanby walks into former Carnegie Public Library, he sees a bright future.
The iconic North End building blocks away from the Idaho State Capitol has been a fixture on the edge of downtown Boise for over a century, but it sat empty in recent years awaiting a new beginning. Swanby and his education technology company Ednetics are poised to start a roughly two-year renovation process to transform the building into offices and a public event space.
On Tuesday, Swanby and his architect, Scott Straubhar, opened the building to local media for a tour. Bounding up the steps into the handsome, dark wood entryway of the main room, Swanby couldn’t help but share his excitement for the project.
“I love this entryway,” he said. “It screams of possibilities.”
Swanby announced the purchase of the Carnegie Library in May, and since then historic research on the building and plans for its transformation has begun in earnest. He hired local firm Hummel Architects, which built the building in 1904, and other experts to look into the beloved Boise structure. If everything goes according to plan, renovations are scheduled to start in early 2020 and stretch for eight months to a year.
There are no plans to change the exterior of the building. As much of the inside as possible will be transformed back to its original state, when it served as the city’s public library from its construction through 1973. In the 1980s, the building was renovated into the office for a law firm, and large sections of both floors were partitioned off into offices, and overhanging lights and carpet were installed.
The vision is to open the entire bottom floor into an open-plan office for 10 Ednetics employees to start, with the goal of growing to roughly 20 in the future. While the first floor will be private office for Swanby’s employees, the vision for the ornately decorated main floor is a flexible event space. The exact use hasn’t been nailed down yet, but Swanby said it should inspire the community in the arts, humanities, science and technology.
When the law firm moved in, large walled offices were erected on the ends of the former reading room, a stairwell was built up to a loft in the building’s 1930 addition on the back side, and a large reception desk was built for the secretaries. Although the woodwork closely mimics the original, it is not original to the space and will be removed.
The differences between old and new in the room are most striking closest to the floor. The original columns boast real marble at the base, which matches the color of the bottom of the law firm’s reception desk. However, the 1980s-era reception desk is decorated with painted wood with the black lines typical of marble drawn on with permanent marker to blend in with the turn-of-the-century columns.
Swanby said research about the building is still ongoing, and once the renovation begins a website will go live with progress and interesting details about the project for the public to see. A recent discovery about the space includes that the back loft used to have a glass floor and book stacks, which Swanby said is being studied to see if the renovation could include this.
Since the news of the building purchase broke, he said multiple people have reached out to tell stories and reminisce about the Carnegie Library during its heyday.
“It was super interesting to me that people had such strong, positive memories about the library — which is pretty cool, but it gives you an extra sense of responsibility,” Swanby said.
The building’s foundation will also be getting some attention during the renovation. When the building was originally constructed, the floors were not directly tied into the foundation, and the building was held in place with gravity instead. Swanby said a major part of the renovation will be to tie in those floor joists to the building itself so it meets seismic codes.
“Our goal is to position the building so it’s ready for the next century,” he said.