Michael J. Daly The Sanborn and the spirit of Cesar

September 30, 2018

If the building is indeed going to go — and hopefully the forces that are trying to save it will prevail — someone has to at least figure out how to save the lovely tile mosaic on the front of Bridgeport’s former Sanborn Branch library at the triangular juncture of Fairfield Avenue, State and Mountain Grove Streets on the city’s West Side.

The mosaic is a hieroglyphic representation of the Puerto Rican emigration to Bridgeport and its factories, one of which, its stacks spewing from the activity and jobs within, is shown in the upper right corner.

Also depicted in the mosaic is a recognizable young Cesar A. Batalla, a respected leader in Bridgeport’s Puerto Rican community in the 1970’s, the man for whom the school just down the street at 606 Howard Ave. is named.

The building is commonly known as the former Sanborn Branch of the Bridgeport Public Library system, the purpose for which it was built some hundred years ago.

But it has also been a bank and was the headquarters of Aspira of Connecticut, a nonprofit organization dedicated, according to its website, “to promoting the postitve development of Puerto Rican/Latino, and other minority youth through community based programs that focus on academic achievement, cultural awareness, college preparation and leadership development.”

Aspira is based now at the city’s new Harding High School.

It was designed in 1922 by architect Leonard Asheim, who is also credited with the design of the Klein Memorial Auditorium, also not far away at 910 Fairfield Avenue.

The library building was roughly modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, with its stately columns, fan window over the entrance and capacious portico. The building is topped with a cupola, rather than the Monticello-style dome.

It has been vacant for years and a jungle of ivy covers some of its walls and the grounds, loosely enclosed by a fence, are littered with the occasional empty bottles of Hennessy and Corona.

Bob Halstead, a former city council member and city planner, retired for 10 years, is among the people who are hoping for some sort of rebirth for the building.

“I’d just like to see the city take a more active role,” he said the other day as we walked around the building.

Halstead, like the others who are advocates for the building’s preservation, has no ill will toward the owners, a Woodbury couple that’s been paying $30,000 a year in taxes on a building that generates no revenue.

You could hardly blame them for wanting to get out from under. In an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media reporter Brian Lockhart last summer, the owners said that as part of a pending sale, the building is going to come down.

And, according to Halstead, the demolition permit has been taken out.

Bridgeport, as noted here many times before, has a history of erasing history, ridding itself of structures that in most cases were no longer productive members of society.

The pity in the Sanborn situation is that the building, if a productive use for it could be drummed up, is at one of the gateways to the city, so close to an I-95 exit that the spacious grounds around it had turned into an impromptu truck stop, according to Halstead, with long haulers pulling off the highway and catching a few winks in their rigs in the shadow of the building.

There’s no question that if the building is to be preserved, it’s going to take some work.

Peering into the building through the front door window, I expected to see what I’ve seen in lots of abandoned Bridgeport buildings — total chaos, debris and water. But that wasn’t the case the other day.

It’s not enough to get nostalgic about beautiful old buildings, no matter how elegant a figure they cut, and demand that they be preserved. That’s unrealistic.

If saving this building — a grace note in a largely commercial and industrial section of the city — is important, the city has to make it a priority.

Cesar Batalla, who died in 1996 at age 51, was just the type of forceful, inventive guy who would be knee deep in this, pushing hard for a just, realistic solution.

Michael J. Daly is editor of the editorial page of the Connecticut Post. Email: mdaly@ctpost.com.

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