Over a decade of multi-million-dollar philanthropy, Nicholas and Athena Karabots of Whitemarsh Township, Montgomery County, have channeled much of their largesse to major urban institutions the likes of the Franklin Institute, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Museum of Art.
But no project has gotten the kind of hands-on attention the two have lavished on a tiny, little-known library in Lafayette Hill, less than four miles from home.
Founded in the 1930s in memory of a local Quaker farmer known never to miss a Sunday meeting, the William Jeanes Memorial Library was not wearing its age well when the Karabots proffered a portion of their fortune.
With their $4.4 million gift two years ago, the couple assured the rebirth of the library as a cutting-edge atheneum, fashioned from the dilapidated shell of its former self.
"What we wanted to see is a bigger, updated library that would be used by a bigger segment of the community," said Nicholas Karabots. "And by God, that's what we have got."
So the late Quaker elder, once eulogized as "devoid of pride," will have to share naming rights. On May 23, the newly-renovated and expanded facility on Joshua Road will be rededicated as the William Jeanes Memorial Library & Nicholas and Athena Karabots Center for Learning.
The 78-year-old Karabots, whose prosperity flowed from printing supplies, puzzle books and real estate, took a keen interest in even the minutiae of construction. He was still fuming last week over the heating and cooling system, which initially was too noisy for a library. With his guidance, and money, it was fixed.
The 18,000-square-foot building actually reopened to the public March 5, after the 41,000-volume collection spent two years in dry dock at the township building on Harts Lane.
The Karabotses, who live on a 240-acre farm, had a passing acquaintance with Jeanes Library as early as the 1960s, when their three daughters, now middle-aged, were Plymouth-Whitemarsh public school students. The girls were familiar figures at the library, recalled Athena Karabots. "We wanted them to get a balanced view of life," her husband added. "That's very important to us."
But it wasn't until the 1990s that checks with many zeros began to be written. He and the late horse farm owner and philanthropist Eugene "Fitz" Dixon Jr. engaged in some good-natured rivalry, with the latter successfully challenging Karabots to match his own $50,000 gift for a new library roof. It was then that Karabots and his wife toured the one-story facility – and were shocked by its condition.
"Oh my God, it's falling apart," he said. "With that, we started a workable relationship with the library leaders over what we wanted the library to be in the future."
After years of discussion, the couple and the library's board of directors, with input from Whitemarsh Township residents and a Friends of the Library committee, decided that rather than raze the building, which had character and sentimental value, they would settle on "a redo."
For Karabots, who spent his boyhood sleeping in a Bronx tenement bedroom the size of a closet, open space was a prerequisite. He asssembled his Karamoor Farm, starting in 1980, with an eye for its open expanses of green dotted with grazing sheep. He incorporated his love of such vistas into the new library design.
The 11,000-square-foot original structure was gutted and renovated to create sweeping, light-filled rooms with views of trees and gardens. An exterior rear wall became the starting point for a two-story, 7,000-square-foot addition with a separate entrance for the downstairs children's area and a community room, said Sydelle Zove, the library board president.
The project's designer, CICADA Architecture/Planning, Inc., of Chestnut Hill, cordoned off the children's area from adult readers and computer users upstairs.
"Teens have their own room," said Lara Lorenzi, the library's direction. "With the children's library downstairs, the children can play and have their own space. Everything they need is right there. The parents can come in, and they don't have to worry about shushing their kids."
Above, there are now library stacks dotted with quiet reading areas. A board room with big glass windows seems to float among the trees.
"Not only do we have windows — they open," said Zove, during a tour last week.
A computer area, periodical room and circulation desk for staff are out in the open, all done in shades of gray and tan.
The Karabots family's gift went for construction and design costs, as well as the bricks and mortar, rugs, floors, plumbing, electrical and climate control systems. The furniture, equipment and landscaping are being paid for through a capital campaign with a goal of $1.2 million. About $460,000 has already been raised from 450 donors, Zove said.
Lara Lorenzi, who joined the library staff as director 18 months ago, says the new surroundings have already paid off in increased traffic.
In March, circulation was 12,607 – up 53 percent from a year before – while the number of visitors increased by increased more than 600, to 7,884. Computer use also jumped.
It is a far cry from the library's modest beginnings in 1933, in rented space in a private home on Butler Pike just west of Germantown Avenue. By 1935, the library had its own building on the grounds of the Plymouth Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. Construction funds for that structure came from a Friend named Mary Rich Jeanes Miller. She bequeathed $75,000 for the creation of a community library in honor of her first husband, William Jeanes. Described in library records as a tall, vigorous man who was "punctual in business," Jeanes served for many years as treasurer, overseer, and elder of the Plymouth Friends Meeting — in other words a leader.
The library later moved to Joshua Road, but only William Jeanes' name went with it. He died in 1906 at age 79, and is buried under a modest headstone in the meeting cemetery, not far from the library.