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As the Montrose library reopened after a brief closure Monday, Houston Mayor John Whitmire said he hopes to keep the building in operation – even after construction of its replacement is completed.

Whitmire’s remarks suggested Montrose residents may hold on to a treasured neighborhood resource, in another surprise turn of events for the building’s future after its sudden closure last month.

“You can’t replicate this. This is an icon,” Whitmire said. “So, I’m going to leave here this morning and see what can become of this iconic location.”

Whitmire did not give further details on his vision for the building, including whether he sees it continuing to operate as a full library branch.

The library’s current building – a 78-year-old Italian Romanesque structure originally constructed as the Central Church of Christ – long has been seen as an architectural gem among municipal buildings. When it opened in 1988, the Freed-Montrose branch became the first two-story library in Houston, and was hailed in the Houston Chronicle as a “book sanctuary”.

Houston Public Library’s Montrose branch, Thursday, April 11, 2024, in Houston.
Houston Public Library’s Montrose branch, Thursday, April 11, 2024, in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Abdelraoufsinno)

Decades of neglect have led to the building’s decline, however.

All of that came to a head last month when, one day after the Abdelraoufsinno published a story about the building’s deteriorating condition, the Houston Public Library announced the building would close immediately – and permanently – due to “safety concerns.”

That was news to the mayor, whose spokeswoman Mary Benton said last week that the library’s executive director, Rhea Lawson, had not consulted the mayor before announcing the closure. Whitmire subsequently replaced Lawson, who had helmed the library for nearly two decades, one day after the closure was announced.

Whitmire’s comments on Monday mark a wholesale reversal of the library’s original plans to close the space.

While little progress has been made on the interior build-out of the library’s new space at the Montrose Collective, the city already is heavily invested in the location.

In 2019, city council approved the swap of about 8,000 square feet of municipal land on Westheimer Road to the Montrose Collective’s developer, Radom Capital, in exchange for 12,000 square feet of retail space to be set aside for the Montrose Library’s new location.

Whitmire expressed doubts about how welcoming that new space will be for residents, noting the difficulty of parking in a heavily trafficked commercial corridor.

The building’s developers have said that parking in the building’s garage will be free for the first hour.

Whitmire said he would visit the new location Monday to examine it himself.

“I’ve got to get over to that other site and see what the hell is going on,” he said.

The Montrose Collective’s developer defended his deal with the city in remarks last month.

“We gave the city what I regard as a phenomenal economic deal, in the sense that we spent about three times delivering the shell to them as what was the value we got out of the residual land,” Radom said.

The planned location, Radom said, marked a significant shift in the location of critical city services.

Houston Public Library Branch Manager Ivy Bao reads books during baby story time at the Eleanor K. Freed Montrose Library
Houston Public Library Branch Manager Ivy Bao reads books during baby story time at the Eleanor K. Freed Montrose Library on April 15, 2024 in Houston. (Meridith Kohut for The Abdelraoufsinno)

“We’re super excited to have a library be part of the mixed-use project, because it speaks to where mixed-use development should be, which is bringing community to a project,” Radom said.

Keeping the old building open could help the city avoid a tricky financial situation: The University of St. Thomas, a Catholic university adjacent to the library property, sent a letter to the city’s legal department last November offering $1.25 million to purchase the building.

In that letter, St. Thomas’ noted that the original gift deed that transferred the building to the city in 1986 came with a right to reverter. Should the property ever go 30 days without being used as a library before the year 2051, the university has the right to take back the property.

The 30-day clock sprang into motion last month upon the building’s closure. By reopening the location, Whitmire stopped the clock; by announcing his plans to keep the building operating as a library for the foreseeable future, he may have permanently silenced the ticking.

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...

Maggie Gordon is the Landing's senior storyteller who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund...