Today, Winston-Salem’s new Central Library will finally open. It’s been a long and unreasonable wait. No tears will be shed for Winston-Salem’s old Central Library. Everyone remembers how bad that place was.
The old Central Library consisted of two buildings. The original one-story building with a basement opened in 1953. A three-story expansion was added to the original building in 1980. Today, only the 1980 expansion remains. It was stripped down to the frame and rebuilt into a modern library.
My memories of the old Central Library begin in the 1980s when I was a child. I never remember being impressed with the place. It always had a cold, empty feeling to it. It was a boring government building ironically next door to Centenary Methodist, Winston’s most ornate church.
The old Central Library made a statement. It was a testament that Winston-Salem/Forsyth County didn’t care much about public libraries or public spaces of any kind for that matter.
Winston’s original Carnegie Library on Third Street (now our Lady of Fatima) which operated from 1906-1953 was a far better structure than the Central Library on Fifth Street ever was.
Until today’s opening of the renewed Central Library, the only structure with any architectural distinction ever built at that location was R.J. Reynolds’ relatively modest, pre-Reynolda home.
R.J. Reynolds’ built his old home back over a century ago when Winston’s Fifth Street was known as “millionaire’s row.” When Camel Cigarettes made Reynolds insanely wealthy he moved to Reynolda. His old home was bulldozed and the property was given to the public.
The best thing that anyone ever said about the old library on Fifth Street was that it was functional. But by the time the Library Bonds passed in November 2010, the old library was barely holding on. The roof leaked and its old wiring was ill-suited for operating rows and rows of computers. The old library had the charm of your average DMV.
But held together by duct tape and the dedication of its staff, the old library on Fifth served the community well. Today’s libraries and more than stacks of books, they serve a lot of purposes. The old Central Library granted internet access to low-income residents. It was a place for young and old to learn. It was a community center where folks came together to hold meetings or hear lectures.
Last, but certainly not least, it was a day-center for the homeless. It was the one place in Downtown Winston where homeless men and women could pee without being harassed. Everyone has missed having a Central Library. But the nearly 3 years that the city has been without a downtown library has adversely affected our homeless population the most.
Today is a happy day for Winston-Salem and all of Forsyth County. Our long wait is finally over. But let’s not forget all the needless delays. The fact that the Forsyth County Commissioners could have operated a temporary downtown library, but they chose not to.
The cramped temporary library at the Forsyth County Government Center was inadequate. There was enough space for the North Carolina Room, but the bottom floor library was tiny. The Forsyth County Commissioners have shown a cruel indifference to the poor and homeless in WS/FC.
As we embrace the renewed Central Library let us never forget the importance of public space. We can’t let our local politicians deny us a crucial public institution such as a Central Library ever again.
As we stumbled our way to a new Central Library, humble High Point expanded its downtown library in half the time, without closing the library down for an extended period of time.
Surely, if High Point can achieve such a feat Winston-Salem could have done the same. Sadly, the old Central Library has remained closed for nearly 3 years now because of the indifference of Republicans on the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners.
W-S Central Library Timeline:
Nov. 2010-Library Bonds pass by a wide margin
Oct. 15, 2014-The old Central Library’s last day. (pictures included in this article are from that day)
Oct. 1, 2015-After nearly a year of inactivity, a formal groundbreaking ceremony was held and the demolition of the old Central Library began.
Aug. 31, 2017-The newer, modern, Winston-Salem Central Library finally opens.