A special library created to preserve the history of St. Paul’s East Side and foster knowledge about its ever-evolving culture will soon take up residence in one of the neighborhood’s most significant buildings.

The historic Arlington Hills Branch Library closed its doors on Saturday in preparation for its move to new $16 million digs a few blocks north. But the building that housed it for nearly a century won’t stay empty for long.

The East Side Freedom Library, run by a nonprofit group launched by a retired Macalester College history professor and his wife, also a Macalester professor, is scheduled to move in by June 1 under terms of a 15-year lease with the city. The group also has an option to purchase the building for $300,000.

The St. Paul City Council is expected to approve the lease during its Wednesday meeting. City Council Member Dan Bostrom, who represents the East Side, said the lease is structured to give the nonprofit the chance to succeed in its educational goals, but also to protect the city’s financial interests along with the building’s historical integrity.

“The big part of it is keeping the facility open to the public,” Bostrom said of the lease.

Building rent is $1 per year. Lease terms also require replacement of the library’s roof before the end of this year.

The Beaux Arts-style building, erected in 1916 at the corner of Greenbrier Street and Jessamine Avenue and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, can’t be altered without city permission. It’s one of three Carnegie libraries in St. Paul — the others are the St. Anthony Park and Riverview branches.

Building plans

“Our first responsibility is the building itself,” said Peter Rachleff, who recently retired from Macalester, where he taught courses on the U.S. labor movement, immigration and African-American history. “We take very seriously that we’re going to have to take care of this building.”

Rachleff and his wife, Beth Cleary, a theater professor at Macalester, are co-directors of the new library. The couple, who have lived in Dayton’s Bluff for 15 years, find that the project blends their passion for education with their love of their neighborhood.

Rachleff said the couple has no plans to alter the library’s sumptuous upper floor, with its tall windows bathing the space in natural light. The downstairs, however, is targeted for a makeover, he said. That space is envisioned for classrooms and meetings rooms for plays, poetry and storytelling.

“We’re not looking for a lot of bells and whistles, but a lot of adaptable, usable space,” he said.

Private and public funding sources will be tapped to raise $800,000 to $1 million over the next five years to pay for the work, Rachleff said.

The library has allied itself with five key groups that support its mission: the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, the University of Minnesota’s Immigration Research History Center, Metro State University’s Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minnesota Humanities Center.

The collections

The library will have an extensive collection of books, which will be used only for research and cannot be checked out. Some will come from Rachleff’s personal collection on labor and immigration; more works are being solicited from former colleagues. Rachleff and Cleary also will donate their collection of African-American art and art from the African diaspora, he said.

The library might also house the archives of Hmong culture collected by Marlin Heise, formerly of the Minnesota Historical Society. That collection includes musical instruments, weavings, papers and oral histories. Fred Ho, the iconoclastic jazz composer who is dying of cancer, also has arranged for his personal archives to be stored there.

Rachleff said that members of the immigrant cultures changing the face of the East Side — Hmong, African-American, Somali, Karen and Latino — can use the library for oral history projects and to preserve their histories.

At the same time, the facility will be a place for the knitting of new traditions with the neighborhood’s established Scandinavian, Irish, German and Italian communities, which shaped the East Side’s past. It will even offer programs such as yoga classes.

“We really want to have an impact on education broadly across the East Side,” Rachleff said.