The Blasco Library in Erie, Pennsylvania, hugs the waterfront of Presque Isle Bay. If you’re in the library and it’s your lucky day, you’ll hear a librarian come onto the PA system to announce that the U.S. Brig Niagara is pulling in to moor right outside the big windows. No one in Erie wants to miss that. The Niagara is the replica of an elegant flagship that was part of the fleet that defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, and Erie is its proud homeport.
Until two decades ago, the library sat up the hill on South Park Row, in a Beaux Art building in a more traditional location in the center of downtown. In the late 1980s, the General Services Administration proposed taking over the building to expand the space needed for the Erie Federal Courthouse. A hot debate ensued over where to build a new library, formally called the Raymond M. Blasco, M.D. Memorial Library: keep it in town, or move it to the then-derelict waterfront. The site had been part of the town’s old generating station, and the library would be the first modern resident of the space. “It was feral cats, rats, and sludge,” said the library’s executive director, Mary Rennie.
The County Council voted 4–3 in favor of the waterfront location, and the building went up, which now is applauded as a brilliant decision that began the revitalization of the town’s scenic waterfront.
Today, the library is an anchor among good neighbors. It shares next-door space with the Erie Maritime Museum and sits in the lee of Erie’s Bicentennial Tower. You can hear tinkle of sailboat halyards in the small marinas. This sound is imprinted in me from growing up as a sailor on Lake Erie in the small town of Vermilion, Ohio, about 150 miles west of Erie. Commerce is arriving as well: the Bayfront has two new hotels, a convention center, an intermodal transportation center, and a few restaurants. I watched small wedding parties staging their photographs on one of the piers, as fishermen stepped out of the way. People come for the spectacular sunsets over the water to the west and the Presque Isle State Park with nearly a dozen beaches for summer crowds. Tourists line up to ride on the kitschy pirate ship, manned by crews in full-regalia who cry out for customers in the old-time vernacular of ahoys and aarrs!
The nautical theme moves indoors as well. That’s a good thing, especially when the infamous lake effect dumps yards of snow onto Erie. People can move protected back and forth between the library and the museum. The first thing you notice is the installation of what I would call sails, and is officially called “Aquatic Dancers” by local artist John Vahanian, that fly above the broad stairways in the main atrium under the skylights. Upstairs is a lovely collection of art, including Summer Afternoon, Isle of Shoals by Frederick Childe Hassam, which, heartbreaking for me, was on tour when I visited, and a Lalique glass fish sculpture. On the main floor is the quiet Peninsula Room, so named for its view of the Presque Isle peninsula, with its high windows and concert-ready acoustics. It’s no wonder that tourists who come in for the computers or wi-fi connections are immediately distracted by the views and locations.