As a kid, Curt Hortsmann was never a big fan of books – or the library for that matter.
Too bad he grew up before Angela R. Kim’s reign as the local library’s director. For the last 20 years, she’s led the beloved Louis Latzer Memorial Public Library in Curt’s hometown.
The building is named after Louis Latzer, a Highland icon often referred to as “the father of PET milk,” whose innovation brought countless jobs to the community. After his passing, his family built and dedicated the library to him in 1929.
For Angela, the institution means just as much today as when its doors first opened — and it’s her job to keep it that way.
“People need help with… everything. So where do they come for all that? They come to the library. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to be more than books,” says Angela.
In fact, that’s their motto: More Than Books.
They offer 45,000 items in circulation, from books to astronomy equipment to musical instruments, plus an additional 9 million more through the Illinois Heartland Library System and 75,000 digital downloadable items. People use the auditorium for book club, chess club, Bible study, story hour, Girl Scouts, Lego club and countless other local gatherings. Free WiFi gives folks internet for online schooling and job hunts. Air conditioning keeps them cool during heat waves. And that’s exactly how it was all designed.
“The original founders were very thoughtful and forward-thinking. They realized that not only does Highland need a library, but we need a meeting place: a place for education, for ideas, for entertainment,” says Angela.
Over the past three years, The Korte Company has helped her further that mission through a $150,000 renovation to fortify the iconic library’s place in the modern age.
And the construction supervisor at her side? Curt Hortsmann of our Diversified Operations crew.
Life’s funny that way. Like any good book, the ending feels surprising and inevitable.
Good things happening for good people
The Korte Company added two annexes and completed various cosmetic upgrades in the 1970s, but by Angela’s arrival in 2002, the library had started showing its age.
She dreamed of a remodel beyond a pretty makeover. The HVAC system needed attention. She worried about out-of-date fire and smoke detectors. She wanted new railings and paint for the rear entrance. The orange carpet in the children’s library hadn’t aged well. Most importantly, the building didn’t meet the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. To Angela, that was unacceptable for patrons.
After learning about the Live and Learn Construction Grants, she polished an application and sent it off. It was late 2019, and she felt hopeful. Who knew what the coming year might bring?
As it turns out: a lot. In January, news outlets started reporting a virus overseas. By March, the U.S. was under national emergency orders, and she and her dedicated team pivoted their strategy.
“We really blossomed. A lot of libraries became little superheroes during the pandemic. We provided access to everybody.”
And just when it was needed most, good news: They’d won a $50,000 accessibility grant — with a stipulation for matching funds. It wouldn’t be easy, but Angela knew she could drum up the money. Plus, the library’s building was already closed to the public with limited curbside-only service.
Though bittersweet, the timing was oddly perfect.
All things considered
With matching funds from the Latzer family, Highland Rotary, City of Highland, Highland Area Community Foundation and numerous private donors, Angela secured an additional $100,000. Best of all, the library board granted her free reign over the renovation.
And to do that, she turned to The Korte Company.
“Ralph Korte is friends with Angela. Every time he sees me, he says, ‘Take care of her and take care of that building.’ So I got strict orders from somebody rather important,” says Curt. “Her and I get along well because I don’t like seeing old buildings go to waste and nobody maintains it like she does. If you dig out photos from before we started and then go visit the building, you will be amazed. And these were all Angela’s ideas. We have not designed anything through Korte on the remodels. She did a heck of a job. Incredible.”
Part of that feat required a balancing act. The library needed to be brought up to current codes and accessibility laws, but Angela didn’t want to lose its character.
“Louis Latzer was so dedicated to the community. His children and wife built this gorgeous limestone library in his honor, and the details needed to be preserved. I wanted people to walk in at the end and go, ‘Oh my goodness, look what they did!’”
We knew exactly what she meant.
Renovations of historic structures are familiar territory for The Korte Company. There’s the El Cortez hotel in Las Vegas and the federal courthouse in East St. Louis, and then the conversion of the historic Assumption Greek Orthodox Church into a modern work area for Rose Design in University City, Missouri.
The irony of being a book hater as a kid and returning to work at the library didn’t escape Curt. But it also didn’t stop him.
“This is my baby, and I love it,” he says.
We started from the outside and worked our way in. First, masonry. The exterior 18-inch limestone blocks were built to last, but we freshened them up with cleaning, sealing and tuckpointing. Next, we replaced the roof. As funds arrived, then came the windows. We also eliminated trip hazards on the back stairway and raised its antique railing to meet modern code requirements. And then we removed and widened several doors.
“We just really opened things up, making it better for not only people that have accessibility needs, but even for us employees with books and the book trucks we’re pushing around,” Angela says.
Curt also updated the old, stained ceiling tiles and refurbished ornate plaster molding that had suffered water damage during a leak. The electrical system was overhauled, and the building’s old lighting was replaced with modern, energy-efficient LED lights.
No detail went unaddressed.
“Korte does multimillion-dollar projects in all different places, but this one was very personal. They made it modern and functional for how we work and live today with computers, electrical, even little things like cleaning up all those cords. There were so many tiny details in the renovation that really made a difference. They’ve been so good to us,” says Angela.
“I’ve worked with many people throughout The Korte Company, but Curt is definitely my favorite. It all came down to his work ethic, wanting things done on time, wanting to do a great job and making sure things were done right. The Korte Company can do anything — and they do,” says Angela.
Blending the old with the new
Angela felt strongly about preserving the library’s historical character and reflecting the values of the community.
So old interior oak doors were upcycled into computer stations. The bathroom marble was salvaged and turned into water fountain backsplash. None of the old, rusting book trucks matched, but instead of tossing them out, Highland Machine refurbished and powder-coated them in a shade they call “Highland Silver.” And the Latzer family donated a stained-glass window salvaged from Hope Lutheran Church, which once stood where the library parking lot is today.
“Those things are my favorite pieces of the whole design and renovation. It saved us money, but it also keeps the history alive.”
Then there was the flooring. Ugly brown carpet surrounded the circulation desk, but Angela knew from old photos that it used to be black and white art deco tiling. We used new ceramic tile to revive the original 1920s aesthetic. The same concept applied to the rest of the building. While most modern libraries opt for low-upkeep carpet tile, Angela wanted the flooring to match the library’s historical charm. That’s why she chose a luxury vinyl tile that looks like hardwood, minus the cost and maintenance. But that presented another dilemma.
“I was trying to match it up to our bookshelves. The problem is, the shelves from the ’72 addition were all different. In the end, I decided to match to the antique woodwork and shelving.”
And instead of chucking the mismatched shelving, she moved them to the fiction section in the annex and refurbished them herself. Rather than staining them to match the other shelves, she painted them white, brightening the entire space.
“Once I started painting those bookshelves white, it was like, ‘Are they going to like it?’ That was really important to me. There was definitely an, ‘Oh please let this turn out!’
In the end, of course, it did.
When you build it, they come
The library reopened to the public in the summer of 2021.
Twenty minutes before that first open house, Angela found herself in the back stairway with Curt. He had become her trusted partner, the go-to she always called for unexpected maintenance issues and opportunities. Together, they applied the final decals on the riser of each step. It was a last-minute chore that helped distract her from her nerves.
It was beautiful, and she knew it. But she still held her breath as folks filtered in.
“When my friends, community and our business leaders came in, that was probably my proudest moment. The mayor and the council members and just various people kept saying, ‘You did a good job. You did a great job. We love this.’ And my staff here still says, ‘I could live here.’ They love it, and I do, too.”
Angela still swells with pride when she looks around the library. It’s the perfect blend of the past, present and future — modern, but timeless.
There’s black and white tile at the circulation desk again. The plaster ceiling has been restored. The flooring gleams. New gallery railing makes sharing community art easy. In the young adult section, a sculpture hangs that was created by Highland Middle School art students. A restored bronze statue reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland greets patrons at the entrance.
The changes are countless, but the library’s soul remains the same. That was always the goal. And while The Korte Company did the work, Angela’s influence safeguarded every aspect of its revival and preservation.
The achievement is hers to celebrate — and everyone’s to enjoy.