Attic sale will show off secret place at OC library

Volunteers Sarah Margherio and Nick Hess check out artwork stored in the former auditorium and theater area on the second floor of the Oil City Library. The space, closed to the public and used solely for storage since 1955, will be the site of an attic sale during Oil City's Oil Heritage Festival. There are plans underway to restore the former theater. (By Judith O. Etzel)

The Oil City Library, often described as a "gem of the city," has a secret place.

It is the second floor auditorium/theater that was abandoned as a public area in the mid-1950s and used only as a storage area since then.

The cavernous and ornate room, accented by large stained glass windows, an elevated wood stage, theater lighting, dressing rooms and more, is due for a major rehabilitation effort led by a group of volunteers who have been laboring to clean it out in preparation for a architectural review and eventual restoration.

"It is a shame to keep this hidden from the community so we are going to give it back," said Nick Hess, a local antiques dealer and a member of the theater restoration committee.

In an effort to reveal the once-cloistered library space, the committee, led by chairman Sarah Margherio, will hold an attic sale from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, July 25, during the Oil Heritage Festival.

"Come check it out," said Margherio. "We will be selling some pieces that haven't been seen in town for years, all pieces of history. The sales will help us get this place up and running."

On tap to be sold are lots of Oil City memorabilia, including high school yearbooks, city directories, various Heritage Society publications, The Derrick's Oil City High School memories book and assorted artwork.

The collection up for sale will also include old holiday decorations, tables, filing cabinets, chairs, display cabinets, book shelves, crockery and more.

While much of the room's contents have been culled over the past several weeks, with library-specific items returned to the facility, much more needs done, said Margherio.

"A lot still has to be inventoried, such as all the bound newspapers from the late 1800s. We have Mark Elliston and Nick, both antique dealers, helping us assess values," she said. "All proceeds will benefit the restoration project."

The second floor area, which also includes the Oil City Heritage Society quarters in one portion, is "fundamentally sound," according to an preliminary architectural review.

A little history

The library opened as the Carnegie Library, one of hundreds across the U.S. funded in part by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, on July 6, 1904. All of the second floor was dedicated as an auditorium and theater. The facility was operated by the City of Oil City.

In May 1955, Oil City Council met to consider the fate of the "run-down auditorium" in light of what other repairs needed done for the entire building. Four options were explored: spend $30,000 to renovate and repair the second floor; convert the second floor into business offices and rent them out; tear off the second floor and make the library a one-story building; raze the entire library and "start from scratch."

Community Playhouse members vehemently protested plans to eliminate the theater/auditorium space and offered to paint it, make repairs, pay part of the heating bill and pay a monthly rent in return for using it. Frank D. McLouth, president of Community Playhouse, argued that his group could save the space.

However, the cost was ramped up when the state Department of Labor and Industry ruled that a fire escape must be erected before the auditorium could be used. That added $10,000 to a preliminary repair figure of about $20,000.

Council debated the issue for two years until it was decided in early 1958 that it would be better to renovate the library's first floor and use the second floor "as attic space."

A full-scale project to modernize the first floor was estimated to cost $114,000. In April, local architect Holmes Crosby was hired to design the project.

The 10-month long remodeling effort resulted in a temporary shifting of library services to the former fire station as Wilson Avenue and East Second Street. Library director Bernice McElhattan oversaw the temporary quarters.

In May 1959, the refurbished library opened with all repairs complete and under a new name, the Oil City Library rather than the Carnegie Library.

Most of the bill was paid by funds provided through the Edith C. Justus and Laura M. Smedley trusts, both handled by First Seneca Bank. Other monies and services were donated by the Belles Lettres Club, Mrs. H.B. Suhr, Oil City Garden Club and Pennland Tankers.

A children's library section was set up in a small corner of the second floor but the remaining space was earmarked for storage only. The stage, bathrooms, expansive floor space, dressing rooms were kept intact but not used.

The 'attic' sale

Volunteers who have worked to inventory and empty out the auditorium space include members of the Oil Region Library Associaton board, the Oil City Library Advisory Board, the Heritage Society and others.

"We are encouraging people to come in and look it over during our attic sale," said Margherio. "I think a lot of people will be surprised that we have this. It's been closed for so long and it is beautiful."

For Hess, the promise of a new performance area warrants the effort going into renovating the facility.

"Any space we can have where people can showcase their talent or perform - that's a real gift. And this is a viable space. It's exciting to do this," said Hess.