Op-Ed: 1913 Library Is Historic

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The story of how our architecturally exceptional 1913 library was created captures an important moment in New Canaan’s history.  It was planned and built during the confluence of two progressive reform movements that changed American and local culture: the public library movement promoting literacy and extending educational opportunity beyond formal schooling, and the city beautiful movement improving civic centers with classical architecture.  New Canaan was ripe for both, with the library’s books and reading room ill-housed in a cramped second floor mid-block building above the Advertiser’s printing presses and neighbored by stables and saloons.  

New Canaan was also then undergoing major demographic change, its declining industrial economy being transformed by the arrival of a large colony of summer residents attracted to the town’s scenery and train connection to New York.  Among the summer residents here by 1911 were at least six accomplished architects who shared a classical approach to design derived from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a belief that architecture could dignify civic life, and deep experience in library design. 

By 1911, an architectural design competition was a well-established means for communities to envision important public buildings.  Originating in the Italian Renaissance, competitions produced the U. S. and Connecticut Capitols, the New York Public Library, and New Canaan’s Town Hall, to name just a few.  Two things set the 1911 New Canaan library competition apart from the norm.  First it was limited to the community’s “Beaux-Arts Six” —an extraordinary number of architects residing in any single Connecticut community at the time.  And it countered the norm that the winning architect would be rewarded with a paid commission.  For the New Canaan library, the invitation to compete was voluntary, waiving payment—an unusual, generous, civic-minded gesture by highly talented professionals.  

The Library’s building committee, whose members reached deep into the community, was a major player in this process.  It included a broad spectrum of year-round and summer residents–bankers, merchants, contractors, and civic activists, chaired by a Stamford industrialist with New Canaan roots.  The committee selected Alfred Taylor’s winning colonial revival design with the advice of William Boring, the architect of the Main Immigration Station at Ellis Island who would swell the group’s number to seven in 1914.

Within the Beaux-Arts Six, the scale and charm of the colonial revival style was considered to be the kind of classicism especially well-suited to civic architecture in a rural place like New Canaan.  Taylor’s design was far from formulaic, drawing instead upon sophisticated design motifs originating in English country houses, in particular Chiswick outside London and Houghton Hall in Norfolk.  Within rugged walls of carefully set local stone for colonial effect, Taylor composed variations of a neo-Palladian Venetian window in three places: formal and academic in today’s Salant Room; functional and utilitarian in the original stacks; and abstracted creatively at the entrance and flanking windows and blind openings on the front façade.  These well-preserved features, fresh, inventive and rare in American architecture in their day, remain so today.

[Wes Haynes is a member of the Friends of 1913 Library and a member of the Advisory Board of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance.]

11 thoughts on “Op-Ed: 1913 Library Is Historic

  1. This is a great summary about why the 1913 Library matters. It would not be hard at all to incorporate this building into an expanded new building as was done before, and has been proven to work in Ridgefield and Stamford to name just a couple. We don’t need a small lawn in downtown New Canaan – we are just blocks away from God’s Acre and Mead Park – keep the existing lawn and build the rest of the building in the (very generous) lot that’s available for it!

  2. The old library building should be removed. Years ago the Library invited in citizens to review the plans for the new digs over a period of several weeks.At that time interested persons sounded off and came to an agreement as to the final plans.Those plans made sense then as they do now.Since then “woke”persons ,among others, perhaps,have discovered a “cause” they can support,trying to overturn the setting,the look the Architects and the Town people agreed to, that considering all,made the most sense. Interested parties could purchase the old building and relocate it. That would take time,effort and money,Library folk have done all these things.

    • Mr. Martin McLaughlin recently wrote, rather dismissively to urge us to “remove” our old library building much as though it were a stain on our municipal fabric. He disingenuously neglects to note among many things that the old 1913 library structure cannot – within the bounds of practical reality – be simply moved elsewhere. A fact that he, as a significant library donor, is no doubt quite well aware of. It is a red herring that continues to be served up as a deceptive alternate.

      Further he seems to assume those of us not as intimately involved with the library’s rather opaque machinations in both planning, design and finance as he, have approved of its plans and the associated validity of destroying probably the finest piece of municipal architecture in the Town of New Canaan.

      Those of us who cherish our sense of history and its community roots, who he rather derisively describes as “‘woke’persons”, do question the rationality of destroying an iconic part of the Town’s architectural character to make way for a modest lawn over looking two gas stations and a municipal parking lot. The lawn no doubt is intended to serve as a frontispiece to the grand piece of modern architecture whose design he falsely claims our community has approved of. That suggested massive sleek modern structure might serve well on a college campus or a corporate research park but it hardly belongs at the center of our decidedly quaint old New England town. We the taxpayers who underwrite three quarters of the library’s operations certainly don’t deserve to have our historic century old library destroyed by those financially privileged enough to do so with a wave their seigniorial hand. They invoke ownership while they obfuscate critical details then they denigrate we plebes as the “woke”; we who through our taxes are charged with its construction and continued operation.

      We can have a new library without reducing to ruins the chief monument to our beautiful architectural history. A community that doesn’t venerate its past has no future.

  3. Marty, I enjoy working with you on the Conservation Commission, but I disagree with your take on the library. Go back, as I did, and read the local news coverage of this project, and you’ll see the town citizens and town elected officials have long been in favor of retaining the 1913 Library — and what’s more, library officials have stated for years that they would do just that. Then, a year ago, they revealed this new plan that doesn’t even preserve the 1913 Library, it destroys it… for a lawn? Add that to the $10 million they’re demanding we taxpayers chip in, plus taking over the Center School parking lot since their well-thought-out parking plan didn’t work, and I don’t know how this thing got so far, far astray. If our town’s iconic 1913 Library isn’t worth preserving, nothing is.

  4. Several years ago, I co-Chaired the original +/-40 person Working Group that met for four successive Saturdays and, with the guidance of Centerbrook Architects, studied how the Library was then currently being used and imagined how it would be used in the future.
    This working group included Townspeople of all ages (high schoolers to senior citizens) and from all walks of life (commuters, real estate brokers, teachers, Library staffers and Board members, Town officials and retirees).
    These gatherings were open, informative and idea-rich fora for everybody involved and their insights and suggestions were imaginative and far reaching. Many of their observations and ideas have been incorporated into the proposed design of the new Library.
    However, their is one important architectural element that has subsequently been dropped even though these volunteers expressed a strong preference for its inclusion: preservation of a substantial portion (such as the front facade) or the entire 1913 Library Building was always high on their collective “must have list”.
    It became clear that the 1913 Library building was an important historical icon for many Townspeople, especially its many Library lovers.
    To many of us, it is confusing and disappointing that the Library’s leadership has forgotten or chosen to ignore the insights and preferences of this first working group as well as the many Townspeople who have expressed similar sentiments over the years since.
    Moreover, it is deeply unfortunate that the leadership of the Library and the Town have ignored the opportunity to carefully curate the reuse of one of New Canaan’s most historically significant buildings.
    It’s time for everybody to come together and resolve to preserve the 1913 Library building and find the funds necessary to do so.

  5. Mr. Jeffrey Williams is more than astute!!!

    New Canaan Library, Inc.’s new library complex plan, as presently presented to our Town, will be a financial debacle beyond anything that New Canaan taxpayers have yet seen. Really.

    I respecfully invite Mr. Williams, and all New Canaan taxpayers who may be similarly interested, to e-mail me at charleslrobinson@mail.com to schedule a time to allow me to show you, in detail, how our Town Of New Canaan will surely be the next “Titanic” to be stupidly destroyed by a $14 million “Iceberg” (above, beyond and in addition to the $10 million “gift”, plus alienation of New Canaan’s Centre School Parking Lot, that Town officials are now conspicuously rushing to grant and cede to the New Canaan Library, Inc.) that our Town officials understand, yet are assiduously not disclosing to you now.

    Sincerely,

    Charles L. Robinson

  6. The Library and changed school start time projects suffer from the same challenge. Worthy objectives, but the proposed implementations create significant new issues. Both projects would benefit from more community dialogue (and genuine openness to adjustment from those who are proposing these changes), as well as full disclosure and transparency about why better solutions cannot be found. In the case of the Library it is finding a way to retain the most relevant portion of the original building, and in the case of start times it is making sure that all kids and families benefit from the change. At the end of the day it is all town residents and taxpayers who will benefit and contribute substantial funds to make both changes successful, or deal with it if they are not.

  7. The biggest issue with the new library is parking. Since the idea of underground parking was nixed, a new plan has not yet been introduced. With limited public parking already, it seems unrealistic that the town could absorb the additional parking needs that a new library would bring.

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