Letter: A Different Approach To New Canaan Library’s Rebuilding Project

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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:

6/15/2016

  • “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)….”

2/19/2015

  • “The original stone façade with columns that faces Main Street also will be preserved, the library has said.”

10/15/2014

  • “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.’ ”

7/8/2014

  • “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.’”

6/6/2014

  • “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.

—Cam Hutchins

19 thoughts on “Letter: A Different Approach To New Canaan Library’s Rebuilding Project

  1. Thank you Cam for reminding us of the past statements by the leaders of the library project. Let’s have an open dialog on the finances, plans for both buildings, ongoing sustainability from a financial standpoint and the true costs of the project.

  2. Very eloquently stated Cam with backed up facts from past.
    Having grown up here Little Red School house, class NCHS 65 memories are vivid. Soon retire cataloguer at NPL, I appreciate libraries. Let’s incorporate 1913 iconic structure solid stable elegant facade.

  3. >>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.<<

    So well put, Cam. Thank you.

    Let's work together to find the best options for both keeping our "little gem of a 1913 library" and having an open dialog about the plans, finances, and sustainability of a new library.

  4. Thank you so much Cam for your level headed letter, and helping with those “sticky issues”. We can build the new library and keep the historic and beautiful 1913 library, and we should. People will thank us for our efforts in the next hundred years.
    Patricia Funt Oxman

  5. Excellent thoughtful letter. Thank you. All in power and involved in the future of our Library should read this letter.

  6. Thank you–especially for raising the point about the town green. While I’m not specifically against the idea, if we are to have a town green, that decision should go through the town bodies to be debated/discussed/vetted with opportunity for taxpayer input. It’s not a private decision.

  7. Thank you for putting everything so well. I agree with everything you said and especially your amplification of the silence that went between assurance that the 1913 Library would be preserved and the decision to demolish. When history has been destroyed, there is no getting it back. I also agree that the “town green” is misconceived. It does not fulfill, “location, location, location.” I do think that green spaces are important, but they need to be in the right spot. Like Mrs. Greens’ in New Canaan, that lacked parking, a town green in this location just is not attractive and will most likely be underutilized. The 1913 Library has functionality beyond its historic status. I don’t want my tax dollars going to destroy it. Mary Ellen Kranzlin-resident and Library supporter since 1990.

  8. Cam, Thank you. I love our library’s current facade. The stone and pillars are a classic, strong and clean look. I really don’t like the new addition at all. Too big. Plus the design won’t age as well as the classic.

  9. All hail Cam Hutchins.

    Not only are historic buildings in a town often beautiful and/or charming, giving character to the town they have stood in ( stood for?), but their removal would contribute to a “same old/same old,” featureless space.

    What did New Canaan get from tearing down Center School to put in a parking lot? Viz. Joanie Mitchell.

    The St. Aloysius Catholic Church built a lovely new spiritual home but also ( as I last remember) left the old church standing.

    No teacher and no book can teach ” history” better than historic sites and buildings. So many students need a more tangible representative of the value of history than solely words can convey.

    To me–adeep feeling and not a fact–to take away the palpable past of a town, as in tearing down historic civic institutions, historic dwellings and landscapes, is to take the town’s presiding air of permanence and value,

    When you take away the local spirit of the place, which the Romans and Greeks
    recognized as the local soul or deity, what do you really have left?

    New Canaan saved its historic civic, educational and residential buildings all along South Avenue including the wonderful Waveny Estate. The town wanted to hand down a cultural legacy and not just square footage.

    What did Manhattan receive when it demolished and desecrated (not a fact, a feeling) the old airily wrought Penn Station to replace it with a bunker-like, comfortless embarrassment?

  10. I think the Penn Station analogy above is exactly inverted. This new library would be the equivalent of tearing down the current Penn Station and replacing it with a beautiful new building. While I respect the desire to preserve structures of historical significance, to me, this 1913 structure is not worth saving. The style has little connection to New Canaan architecture – neither colonial era, red brick, nor mid-century modern. I believe this new proposed new library is frankly also about preservation. It’s about preserving New Canaan as one of the most beautiful towns in New England, one of the best places to raise a family. Having seen the 3D renderings of the proposed new library (and the overflow crowds at town meetings in support of the project), I have no doubt that this new library will be a major positive for New Canaan. Further, I believe there has been no practical plan put forward by those looking to preserve the current structure. Having renovated a historic home in New Canaan with my wife Elsa, and grown up as a kid going to the current library, I very much care about preserving the rich architectural history of the town. But this is not the structure to save. We need to get going – and now – on the new library.

    • Hi George – I am new here, but keeping aside the debate on personal architectural tastes, I am curious why we value a ‘town green’ more than keeping the older part of the Library. We have a similar green space next to the Library today that does not appear to get much use – perhaps with the exception of summer theatre. That green space is going to be used for the new Library, and nobody appears too worried. Do we really think so many people are going to use this new ‘town green’ sandwiched between a rather busy Cherry Street (with a parking lot in front) and next to what appears to be a valuable gas station? My sense is potential new residents are attracted to the charming mix of old and new that New Canaan offers. Incorporating (or keeping with another use) the ‘old’ Library into the plans I think would improve the project, and also potentially increase support in the town for proceeding with this project – and request for significant public financial support.

  11. If the original 1913 Library building, featured in the New Canaan Historical Society’s book “Landmarks of New Canaan” (available are the Library), is not worth saving, then what is? It is authentic history, constructed of local stone, and has been in continuous use for over 100 years. The “red brick” look in town you believe is significant is colonial revival from the mid-20th century. And the “mid-century modern” look the new Library is supposed to pay homage to is not a downtown New Canaan thing, by and large; our mid-century heritage is residential and generally in the 2-acre zone and beyond. But most to the point, I’d ask you to read my letter above. The Library’s leadership has told us for years they were going to preserve the 1913 building, based on what they admitted was clear community preference. This year, we all found out that was simply not true. Bait and switch, and one of our actual landmarks gets consigned to the dumpster to make way for… a lawn.

  12. I know everyone on this thread loves New Canaan and wants to make it the best town possible. Intelligent people can disagree. I can’t comment on what was said 5+ years ago by a few members of the Town. However, much more recently and relevant, from my perspective, were the multiple open town meetings with overflow crowds and universal support for a new library. I didn’t hear a single voice speak up in favor of preserving the current structure; it’s really impractical to try and fix it. I’m not sure why there’s this excessive focus on the lawn, but I’m also not sure why a new lawn is not vastly superior as it effectively replaces the above ground parking lot in the back with underground parking. Maybe the preservationists could draw up a plan to primarily raise funds privately to preserve the stone façade, with the town proportionally kicking in to the same percentage (10/35 = 28.5%) as they are to the new library, if that’s what’s greatly desired as a compromise, to have some kind of homage to the old library.

  13. The current library is wonderful. My family uses it all the time for study, books, tutoring session, videos, sessions with the Community Mindfulness Project…It seems to serve us well. So why build a bigger analog library in a digital world? Why don’t we make wi-fi available town-wide? Why don’t we renovate the former teen center and make it a place for kids to go study? Let’s put money in places that make our town forward facing.

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