Op-Ed: ‘Critically Important’ To Move Forward with Current Plans To Rebuild New Canaan Library


To the editor:

These are exciting times for the New Canaan Library as we embark on a project to build a new library and center for lifelong learning that will serve the town for generations to come. 

We truly appreciate the incredible amount of support and interest that we have received from the community, town government and our very generous donors. Over $15 million in private capital has been raised to date indicating strong support for our existing plans for an iconic mid-century glass and stone building combined with the Town Green. 

Further, a recently completed economic impact study indicates that New Canaan could benefit with up to an additional $6 million of economic activity as a result of this project. We expect to break ground in early 2021 and have the new building up and running by late 2022. 

To achieve all this, it is critically important that we continue to move forward now with our current plans. Over the past 15 years, successive Boards of Trustees of the New Canaan Library have worked to advance a plan for a new library in downtown New Canaan. This process included convening focus groups to determine the needs and desires of residents and a careful examination of the requirements for the next generation of modern libraries. During this period, two of the country’s most renowned architectural firms, Robert A.M. Stern Architects and Centerbrook Architects, were hired by successive boards to evaluate options to design a new Library including whether we could retain the 1913 structure. 

Given the fondness for the 1913 Main Street building, serious consideration was given to the possibility of renovating the existing library and/or integrating the original structure into new plans. In both instances, it was determined that this was not a viable approach given both the high costs and the severe restrictions it would place on design and functionality of the new library. In the end, after exhaustive consideration, it became clear that there is no financial nor functional rationale for keeping the structure. 

Furthermore, our successful land acquisitions enabled us to envision the creation of Town Green that will enhance community life and library offerings. Leaving the 1913 structure in place ruins the Town Green, seriously compromises the visual integrity of the new Library and negates and the opportunity for community life that the Green will provide. 

We understand the nostalgia for the original structure and we look forward to working with the community to preserve its memory. To be clear: to preserve the original structure is to rebuild it. The estimated cost is well in excess of $2 million. Once the rest of the existing library is removed, all that would remain are 2.5 external walls, a partial rubble foundation and a roof of indeterminate useful life. There is no HVAC or plumbing. It will also need a new foundation and the remaining external walls. The building would also need to be brought up to current building code as well as ADA compliance—most likely necessitating a long ramp up from Main Street. Furthermore, there are serious impacts on site drainage. In the end, what would be left is a costly, out-of-place structure situated on a large mound in the middle of the proposed town green that will serve no functional purpose for the library. 

Clearly, this is not what the current Board of Trustees, library donors and community at large want. We also believe it is not in the best interest of taxpayers to keep this building. The proposal from Mr. Butterworth would see the town required to own and maintain yet another building at a time where the stated objective is to reduce this burden.

As an alternative the library would be willing to work with any serious group who wish to raise the funds to move the existing 1913 structure to another location. However, we will not permit the forward momentum of this project to be hijacked by those whose narrow objectives fail to address the needs of the wider community and do not recognize the substantial support already pledged for the new library plan as evidenced by our tremendous fundraising success to date. Any effort to change or delay the project, no matter how well intentioned, could have a serious impact on our fundraising and the eventual timing and delivery of the new library. 

We believe this would be a mistake and only serve to delay the inevitable. 

New Canaan sorely needs a new library. It is long overdue and well deserved.


Robert E. Butman
President, Board of Trustees, New Canaan Library

Ian Hobbs
Chair, Building Committee, New Canaan Library

7 thoughts on “Op-Ed: ‘Critically Important’ To Move Forward with Current Plans To Rebuild New Canaan Library

  1. I’m new to town and don’t know many. I’m also not a politician. However, when the President of the Board of Trustees writes, “….we will not permit the forward momentum of this project to be hijacked by those whose narrow objectives fail to address the needs of the wider community and do not recognize the substantial support already pledged for the new library plan as evidenced by our tremendous fundraising success to date…..”, it is alarming.

    I moved my family here 3 years ago in part because of the great architecture; because of Johnson, Breuer, Noyes, Gore, Johansen; because of the 1 or 2 examples from Wright; because of Waveny, Irwin and the Nature Center; because of God’s Acre; because of the intersection of Elm and Main; because of the symbiotic relationship between the new and old that is the fabric of New Canaan.

    If the Board does not have the broad view, long foresight and courage to spend more time and effort saving this small, historic structure, then how will there be support the next time a Noyes or Johnson house is scheduled to be razed?

  2. Bob and Ian: I have loved the design of the new library since seeing it in Bob’s barn a year ago. I wasn’t asked at the time what I would think of retaining the 1913 building as a separate facility standing apart with an independent function and separate funding, so I’m guessing that none of your donors were asked that either. Once more townspeople become aware of the possibility, I’m confident that many will agree to keep an open mind while we explore it. I hope you are willing to do the same.

    • I agree with Tom Butterworth’s approach. The attractive new library should be built but we should earnestly explore how to retain and repurpose the original 1913 building that has meant so much to so many people for over a century. The century-old library building on its existing site leaves much room for natural beauty that would complement the new library. So let’s give the community a chance to weigh in on this! New Canaan has both a heart and a mind for positive, collaborative change.

  3. At the risk of drawing fire from those who disagree (RIP my mentions), the architectural and nostalgic significance of New Canaan’s mid-century moderns (or God’s Acre, or Waveny) are not appropriate comparisons to the original library building.

    It’s important that we maintain proper perspective. The Noyes, Johnson, and Gores houses (among others) are truly unique expressions of local visionaries…visionaries who, it should be noted, faced their fair share of opposition from contemporaries lamenting the ways in which these modern designs would fatally degrade New Canaan’s historical character.

    The 1913 library, by contrast, is a colonial revival; a style whose de facto epicenter is…Connecticut. Personally, I tend to err on the side of preservation wherever possible, but in this instance I believe that the plan for the new library has been developed thoughtfully and offers New Canaan the chance to create a vibrant, sun-drenched community space that will revitalize the downtown.

    The value of our library simply does not reside in its architectural features: there is hardly a shortage of colonial revivals across our region and beyond. Rather, its value lies in its intrinsic role as an institution that promotes literacy, creativity, and fellowship. Rejecting a plan that would enhance those ideals in favor of clinging to an admittedly charming, though vestigial, piece of the past would paint New Canaan as culturally ossified; as more interested in freezing time than expanding into it.

    Young families want to find a community where they will feel welcomed and where their contributions will be valued. If New Canaan wants to be seen as such a community, we can’t just point to the mid-century moderns and say “See? We allowed a few changes 70 years ago!” We need to embrace renewal on a continual basis if we want to be seen as a place where tradition and innovation can coexist.

  4. No one really asked for another “Town Green,” so that seems like an odd reason to demolish our core 1913 library. Don’t get me wrong, I think the new library itself looks terrific. But — since we taxpayers are being asked to chip in $10 million for this proposal — the Library should put in deed restrictions that the “Town Green” they’re currently touting will remain just that — that it won’t become another parking lot or library addition. If the library isn’t willing to do that, then we’d truly be giving away something for nothing.

  5. Bob and Ian – you are asking the town for $10m for a new library and to demolish a portion of the library that many people appear to like, and think represents the town. This is at the same time as the town has real financial pressures. If my numbers are right the town already covers around 2/3 of the expenses for the present library, so the town and its residents have a real seat at the table when it comes to the library.
    I understand you may have been working on this for a long time (but you only released information to the town with limited real details (financial and otherwise) in January) – the town has new residents and new challenges – situations change over the 15 years when this project started.
    If residents of the town have feedback and ideas on how this can be done better, I really think you and the board owe it to both the library and the town to actively listen, not ignore or shoot down well intended (and possibly good) ideas. If the suggestions are not good, give people with the suggestions the detailed material you have, so they can be as convinced as you are that your proposal is the way to go.
    Lastly, lets keep in mind that the library is located between 2 parking lots (one a former school that perhaps people liked as well prior to it being taken down), a gas station and a three lane road – a nice spot for sure but lets keep this in perspective when we talk about the town green. I am not sure keeping the small part of the old library people like is really that crazy an idea, and I suggest you try to work with the community on this feedback. Perhaps being more open to feedback will get you more support in the significant financial ask you have from town residents (as well as cultural adjustment), at the same time as improve the project and this part of town.

    • Great points. Completely agree with Mr. Landi. I also think that we should have a referendum on if taxpayers want to spend and probably have to bond that kind of money for the library. It is not a small sum and if the taxpayers of New Canaan are taking on the debt and not the library then a referendum seems wise.

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