Thomas Balch won't be home, Jane Sullivan said, until he is sitting in a new, brightly lit foyer--at least the two-foot bronze bust of him.
Over the next year, the historic-documents library on Market Street that is named after Balch, who was born in Leesburg and went on to become a historian and maritime lawyer, will undergo a $2 million renovation.
During the 1960s, it was the county's only public library. In 1992, as the county added more library branches, it specialized in genealogical and historical research. In the meantime, the 77-year-old brick structure that Balch's two sons built in his honor has fallen into disrepair.
A leaky roof caused water to drip on rare collections of genealogical research and history books, turning their pages brown and yellowed. Occasionally, chunks of plaster fell through the ceiling. "We were always having to move things back and forth to avoid the leaks," said Sullivan, who has run the library for more than a decade.
An antiquated heating and air conditioning unit broke down five or six times a year, creating moisture that curled old magazine pages or turned them moldy. In the basement, where many of the books and diaries were kept, a dehumidifier had to be run constantly to keep air circulating. Asbestos was found in the floor. With crowded shelves and no closets, librarians ran out of room to store collectibles.
"It was pretty unpleasant," Sullivan said.
But her face lit up as she described the planned renovations and showed off a color illustration of the new structure in preparation for a Sept. 18 groundbreaking. About 3,500 square feet will be added to the back of the building. As patrons enter the remodeled originial building, Balch's bust will be in the middle of the foyer. There will be a reading and study room with tables and couches in the front area near a bay window and an archive room to house about 500 boxes of manuscripts and newspapers. The basement will include librarians' offices and a 70-seat meeting room looking out on a garden. Local groups will be able to rent the space for meetings, Sullivan said.
"It's going to be just beautiful," Sullivan said. The Town of Leesburg contributed $1.5 million toward the renovation from a bond referendum; the rest--some of it still being raised--is coming from the Balch family trust and donations.
James P. Lucier, chairman of the Town of Leesburg's library commission, said the library's renovation will fit well into the historical atmosphere of downtown Leesburg. "Inside, it will have up-to-date technical equipment," he said. "It will have Internet access and materials of all kinds for anyone trying to do genealogy research."
Until then, library staff members are making do at their temporary home at the former Inglenook Bookstore, a few blocks away at Market and Harrison streets. Last month, they moved 8,000 books, magazines, letters, pictures and maps, some of which date to 1800.
Sullivan said the move was a bit difficult because many of the materials are in delicate shape.
"These pieces are all rare," she said as she walked along the aisles of the former bookstore. "They can't easily be replaced, so you couldn't just pack them and throw them in a box. There are no reprints." Among priceless examples of irreplaceable pieces, she pointed to "The Letters of Sarah Grubb," a book that tells the life and stories of a Quaker woman who lived in the area in 1848.
Although Balch spent only his early childhood years on King Street before his family moved to Philadelphia, his heirs asked permission in 1922 to build a library to honor his work. Balch, who died in 1877, helped craft the practice of what is now called maritime law, Lucier said.
Before they built their father's library on Market Street, a Miss Fishbourne is said to have run a one-room library for Leesburg and Loudoun residents out of her house on Cornwall Street, according to Sullivan and local historians.
The Balch Library was a private concern, and Loudoun residents paid $1.50 a year to join.
"Back then, it was more than a library. It was also a social center," Sullivan said. "There were tea parties and social clubs here in addition to the books." She is trying to collect old pictures of those parties and events for an exhibit once the renovated space opens.
During the 1960s, the library became a public facility, but it quickly outgrew its space as the county grew. "We had 30,000 books in a space made for 4,500 books," Sullivan said. In 1992, Loudoun County built the Rust Library near Ida Lee Park. In 1994, the county gave the Balch Library to the town, complete with such finds as a Winslow Williams collection of 6,000 prints and negatives from the 1940s to 1960s, extensive architectural documents of the local and Virginia area, plus stacks of church and cemetery records, tax rolls, census counts and marriage and death notices.
"We are lucky to have Balch Library because few bedroom communities have any sort of depth of a history," Lucier said. "We have the history, and through Balch we are able to protect it."
Other historical groups in Leesburg said they hope the renovated building will draw more visitors to the downtown area.
"It's definitely going to improve their operation," said Tracy Gillespie, executive director of the Loudoun Museum. "Some communities have completely lost the records they once had that Balch still has.
"It's important for it all to be stored and kept where it won't get brittle or moldy, because once the ink from old documents is faded, it's too late," Gillespie said. "You can't restore them. They're gone."