We’ve all seen so many letters and comments here about the plans for the new library—and still no one’s really working together to resolve the few sticky issues that remain.
I’ve been a happy card-carrying patron of the New Canaan Library since 1965. Always a great place to go, it helped me get through Center School, Saxe, New Canaan High School, college, grad school, job searches, and parenthood (books for my kids), and it has helped me to explore fiction and non-fiction, lectures, films, and exhibits. So I’m a fan, and I certainly appreciate how a good library is an active part of a vibrant downtown.
That’s why the debate concerning the library’s recently announced decision to demolish its original 1913 building is so dismaying. Many, but not all, of the arguments I’ve read that support demolition are distorting what really should be a rational and civil discussion.
Despite the straw man and ad hominem “pro demolition” arguments I see being made, most people I talk with seek a middle ground—yes, they’d like a new library, but one that doesn’t needlessly toss away a very prominent, visible piece of our town’s community history.
This sensible point of view isn’t new; it‘s been true for a long time. Until just a few years ago, the library’s leadership regularly assured all of us that the 1913 library building was important and would be incorporated in any new library plan. I’m not making this up, it was covered right here in the New Canaanite:
- “Finance board members asked [former president of the library’s board of trustees Chris LeBris]… whether the original façade of the 1913 library now facing Main Street at Cherry would be incorporated in a rebuilt facility (yes)….”
- “The original stone façade with columns that faces Main Street also will be preserved, the library has said.”
- “Town council members including Kathleen Corbet, John Engel and Joe Paladino asked about what parts of the existing facility will be preserved….[Library Board of Trustees President Christian] Le Bris said original, stone-façade ‘legacy’ building that faces Main Street will be saved ‘in some form’ since ‘it is a symbol of the town and a symbol of the library.’ ”
- “Officials long have said that early community surveys showed that New Canaanites wanted certain pieces of the current building, including its original stone façade (facing Main), to be preserved. Le Bris said an area of the rebuilt library that includes places where visitors would gather—such as an art gallery, meeting rooms and events spaces— ‘would incorporate the legacy building and that would have a more traditional look into the architecture and feel of the town.’”
- “Guiding principles of the project include sensitivity to the community’s clearly expressed desire to preserve the original stone façade and pillars that face Main Street, as well as considerations such as space use and flexibility, [Director Lisa Oldham] said.”
But this year, after a few years of no news, presumably the “quiet fundraising” period from which most of us were excluded, it came as a surprise when we all learned that the original 1913 library would not be incorporated. In fact, it wouldn’t even be saved. In fact, one of our townscape’s proudest Main Street icons would simply be wrecked, shoveled into a dumpster, and carted away forever.
I get that things change, but given the past community interest in preserving the 1913 library, this seems like a change that should have been made public and discussed before this year.
When I now hear allegations that it’s merely a “small group” of “mean-spirited” and “disgruntled” backbenchers suddenly questioning the library’s demolition plan—or, incredibly, that we should “dismiss the noise of naysayers” who “lie”—I have to say that kind of talk just doesn’t match my reading or experience of this project nor of the people involved over many years.
Or when I hear that the current library is just an “outdated building that is poorly designed, inefficient, leaking, flooding and expensive to operate and constantly repair,” I think we all know that may be true of the 1970s addition, but by contrast that the 1913 library is in solid shape. Let’s not conflate the two; don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.
I look at successful co-existence between new and old in our town, for example the modern Presbyterian church, attached to Lindenfield (the Susan Dwight Bliss house); or the former home still standing behind modern St. Mark’s church; or the addition attached to St. Michael’s church; or the modern addition blended with New Canaan’s iconic Town Hall; or the recent “This Old House” home on God’s Acre that achieved a modern new dwelling while preserving the classic street facing facade. Or, for libraries, how Ridgefield incorporated its legacy building in its elegant LEED-certified expansion. Or how so many colleges and universities do likewise all the time. Or, again, how many of our downtown Main Street commercial buildings, built in the late 19th century, are completely useful and beautiful today. And then I wonder why our little gem of a 1913 library, with 100-plus years of clear public love and input to preserve it, is now fated instead for disrespectful demolition.
I’m wary, too, of the proposed “town green” that would “replace” the 1913 library. No one asked for it. It’s at a very busy intersection, one often surrounded by backed up traffic and trucks; its main view is a municipal parking lot. There seems to be no real guarantee that this “green,” where the 1913 building now stands, won’t later be sold off or developed. After all, the next door gas station just commanded a hefty price, over $4 million. Someday, to pay its bills, the library may be tempted to sell the “green.” If that happens, New Canaanites will be left with neither the true historical building nor the faceless lawn for which it was casually sacrificed.
Let’s not toss our town’s real history in the dumpster just to landscape around a stunning new library building that can easily be built and enjoyed without wrecking the original.
I love libraries, especially the New Canaan Library. But, like so many here in town, I don’t believe demolition of the sentinel 1913 library should ever have been on the table in the first place.
Maybe we can all stop writing letters and get together now, while there’s still time, and figure out how to make this work. New library, yes. 1913 library, yes. More thought required, yes. More charitable characterizations of others’ valid concerns, yes, please.