Thomas Crane Public Library, Quincy, Mass

The Thomas Crane Public Library on Washington Street in Quincy, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The library in 2019:

The Thomas Crane Public Library was established in 1880 by Albert Crane as a memorial to his late father, Thomas Crane. Born in 1803, Thomas grew up in Quincy and began working here as a stonecutter in the granite quarries. He later moved to New York, where he had a successful business career selling Quincy granite in the rapidly-growing city. However, he did not forget Quincy, often spending his summers here, and after his death in 1875 his son decided that a public library would be an appropriate way of honoring his memory.

The building was designed by Henry H. Richardson, one of the nation’s preeminent architects of the 19th century. Richardson pioneered a style known as Richardsonian Romanesque, which typically featured rounded arches, tall narrow windows, and rough exterior walls with contrasting light and dark stone. The vast majority of Richardson’s works were public buildings, including a number of churches and railroad stations, and he also designed several libraries. Despite its relatively small size, this library is generally regarded as one of his finest works, with architectural historian and Richardson biographer Henry-Russell Hitchcock declaring it to be “without question the best library Richardson ever built.”

The library was completed in 1882, with the formal dedication on May 30. Albert Crane and other members of his family attended the event, and he ceremonially handed over the keys of the building to Charles Francis Adams Jr., the grandson and great grandson of Quincy’s two famous presidents. Adams then gave the keynote address, in which he recounted the life of Thomas Crane, with a particular emphasis on his humble origins and his strong personal character and morals.

The building’s architecture was well received, and the Boston Journal published a glowing review of its design as part of its coverage of the dedication ceremony:

It is built in what may be termed free Romanesque style of architecture, and is in the form of a parallelogram, 84 by 41 feet in dimensions. The outer material is of Easton pink-tinted granite trimmed with Longmeadow brown stone. The interior above the basement is occupied by one lofty story and a low studded attic. The southern portion is devoted to a reading room. There are in the large hall 16 alcoves with a capacity of 40,000 volumes, and a small room is specially devoted to books and manuscripts pertaining to local history. The effect of the interior is pleasing. There are seven large windows beautifully decorated in stained glass by La Farge. In the east window of the reading room are the suggestive words; “And his leaves shall not wither.” The principal light is a remarkable piece of work, the design of which is by La Farge, and represents in vivid hues an old philosopher holding a roll in his hand. The finish of the interior is of Southern pine, beautifully decorated. The cost of the structure was $40,000, and the expense of grading and embellishing the grounds will probably reach $10,000 or $15,000 additional.

Despite the large capacity of the original library building, though, it was soon in need of expansion. The first addition came in 1908, with a wing in the rear of the library. Richardson had died more than 20 years earlier, but one of his former employees, William Martin Aiken, designed the addition, which matched the appearance of the original building. A second, more substantial expansion came in 1939, with the construction of a new building immediately to the southeast, connected to the older building by an L-enclosed walkway that is partially visible on the far right side of the present-day scene. As with Aiken’s wing, the architecture of this addition copied Richardson’s style. Then, the last expansion occurred in 2001, with a substantial addition to the east of the 1939 wing that doubled the size of the library.

Today, despite these many additions, the original 1882 Richardson portion of the library has remained essentially unchanged from this view. Its surroundings have changed, and the tower of the 1927 Bethany Congregational Church now looms above the building in the distance, but the old library has survived as an important work by one of the greatest architects in American history. Because of its architectural significance, the library was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and 15 years later it was designated as a National Historic Landmark, the highest level of federal recognition for a historic property.

Widener Library, Cambridge, Mass

The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, around 1914-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The library in 2019:

As discussed in the previous post, Harvard’s first purpose-built library was Gore Hall, which opened here on this site in 1841. Although architecturally-impressive, this Gothic Revival building proved too small for the school’s growing collections of books. It was expanded several different times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it was ultimately demolished in 1913 to build the Widener Library, which is shown here in these two photos.

The construction of the Widener Library actually came as a result of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Among the ship’s passengers were wealthy businessman George Dunton Widener, his wife Eleanor, and their son Harry, who had graduated from Harvard five years earlier. Both George and Harry died in the sinking, but Eleanor survived and soon began planning an appropriate memorial for her late son.

In his will, Harry had asked that his rare book collection be donated to the school. However, his mother went far beyond that, and instead of simply giving his books to the existing library, she built an entirely new library for all of the school’s books. Eleanor Widener was closely involved with the details of the building, including choosing its architect, Horace Trumbauer, and she likely spent around $3.5 million on its construction.

Work on the new library began after the demolition of Gore Hall in 1913, and it was completed two years later with a dedication ceremony on June 24, 1915. The first photo was apparently taken before this, probably in 1914 or 1915. The exterior of the building was essentially complete by this point, but the interior was likely still under construction, as indicated by the pile of debris on the right side, and the “Geo. F. Payne & Co. Builders” sign on the far left.

When it opened, the library had more than 50 miles of shelves, and a total capacity of over 3 million books. Even this would not be enough for the school’s ever-growing collection. By mid century its holdings were doubling approximately every 17 years, leading to the opening of new libraries around campus that specialized in particular fields. Then, in the 1980s the school constructed the Harvard Depository in Southborough, allowing for off-campus storage of library materials.

Throughout this time, the exterior of the Widener Library has remained essentially unchanged in more than a century since the first photo was taken, and it remains the central library at Harvard. Perhaps its single most famous work here is one of only 23 known complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be printed on a printing press. Like the library building itself, this Bible was a gift of the Widener family, who donated it to Harvard in 1944. However, it is only one of around 3.5 million books that are housed here in the Widener, making it one of the largest libraries in the world, and the largest university library.

Gore Hall, Cambridge, Mass

Gore Hall at Harvard University in Cambridge, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2019:

Gore Hall was constructed between 1838 and 1841 as the first purpose-built library building on the Harvard campus. The Gothic Revival-style exterior was constructed of Quincy granite, and it was designed by noted architect Richard Bond, who drew inspiration from King’s College Chapel at Cambridge University. The building was named for Christopher Gore, a 1776 Harvard graduate who went on to serve as a U. S. senator and governor of Massachusetts. He died in 1827 and left a substantial amount of money to the school, some of which was used to build this library.

Upon completion, the new library housed about 41,000 books, and the size of the building seemed adequate for future growth of its collections. However, within about 50 years the library had outgrown this space. A new addition was constructed on the east side of the original structure in 1877, and it is visible in the distance on the right side of the first photo. This expanded the building’s capacity by about 250,000 books, but even this was not enough, and in 1895 the ornate interior was largely gutted to add space for another quarter million books.

The first photo was taken around the turn of the 20th century, not long after this renovation took place. The library would be expanded one more time in 1907, but by this point its days were numbered. The building’s demise was ultimately hastened by, of all things, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Among the passengers lost in the disaster was businessman George Dunton Widener and his son, 27-year-old Harvard graduate Harry Elkins Widener. Harry’s mother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, survived the sinking, an she subsequently donated money to Harvard in order to construct a new library in memory of her son.

Gore Hall was ultimately demolished in 1913, in order to make room for the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, which was completed in 1915. This building is still standing here today, where it serves as the main library of Harvard University. In this scene, there are no visible remnants from the first photo, although some parts of Gore Hall were repurposed or preserved. The granite blocks of the old building were used for the foundations of the Widener steps, and several of the ornate pinnacles still survive, including two here at Harvard.

Lenox Library, New York City

The Lenox Library, seen from the corner of Fifth Avenue and 70th Street in New York City, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene on December 20, 1913. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The modern concept of a public library in the United States began in the second half of the 19th century, and many such libraries had their origins in private libraries that were run by organizations or by wealthy benefactors. Here in New York City, these included the Astor Library and Lenox Library. Both were open to the public—with restrictions, particularly here at the Lenox Library—but they were intended primarily for researchers, and the books did not circulate. However, these two libraries formed the basis for the New York Public Library, which was established upon their merger in 1895.

The Lenox Library was the younger of the two institutions, having been established in 1870, although its founder, James Lenox, had begun collecting rare books several decades earlier. The son of wealthy merchant Robert Lenox, James inherited over a million dollars after his father’s death in 1839, along with a significant amount of undeveloped farmland in what is now the Upper East Side. He had studied law at Columbia, although he never actually practiced, instead spending much of his time collecting books and art.

For many years Lenox kept his collection in his house, which became increasingly overcrowded and disorganized. As a result, he created the Lenox Library in 1870, and that year he hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a suitable building, which would be located on Lenox-owned land here on Fifth Avenue, opposite Central Park between 70th and 71st Streets. It was one of the first major commissions for Hunt, who would go on to become one of the leading American architects of the late 19th century.

The building, shown here in the first photo, was completed in 1877. It was a combination library and art museum, featuring four reading rooms plus a painting gallery and a sculpture gallery. Admission was free of charge, but for the first ten years patrons were required to obtain tickets in advance by writing to the library, which would then send the tickets by mail. In any case, the collections here at the library would not have been of much interest to the casual reader. Because of Lenox’s focus on rare books, the library was, in many ways, more of a museum of old books than a conventional library. In addition, its holdings were far less comprehensive than most libraries, with a narrow focus on the subjects that Lenox was personally interested in.

Despite these limitations, though, the library was valuable for researchers searching for hard-to-find volumes. Perhaps the single most important book in its collection was a Gutenberg Bible, which Lenox had acquired in 1847. It was the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the United States, and it is now owned by the New York Public Library, where it is on display in the McGraw Rotunda. Other rare works included Shakespeare’s First Folio and the Bay Psalm Book, which was the first book published in the American colonies. Aside from books, the library also had important documents, including the original manuscript of George Washington’s farewell address, and its art collection featured famous paintings such as Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole, and a George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

Overall, James Lenox contributed about 30,000 books to the library, which continued to grow after his death in 1880. By the 1890s, it had over 80,000 books, thanks to a number of significant donations and purchases. These additions helped to broaden the scope of the collection, making it more useful to the general public. However, the library struggled financially during the late 19th century, as did the Astor Library, and in 1895 they merged with the newly-created Tilden Trust to form the New York Public Library.

The new library subsequently moved into its present-day location at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in 1911, and the former Lenox Library was sold to industrialist Henry Clay Frick, who demolished it to build his mansion on the site. A longtime business associate of Andrew Carnegie, Frick was the chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, and by the 1910s he was among the richest men in the country. In 1918, for example, the first Forbes Rich List ranked him second only to John D. Rockefeller, with a net worth of around $225 million.

Frick had purchased the library property in 1906 for $2.47 million, but he had to wait until the library had moved its collections to the new building before he could take possession of the land. He ultimately acquired it in 1912, and demolished the old library that same year. His new home was then built here over the next two years, with a Beaux-Arts exterior that was designed by Thomas Hastings, a noted architect whose firm, Carrère and Hastings, had also designed the New York Public Library. The second photo shows the house in December 1913, in the midst of the construction. The exterior was largely finished by this point, but it would take nearly a year before Frick moved into the house with his wife Adelaide and their daughter Helen.

Like James Lenox, Frick was a collector, using his vast fortune to amass a variety of artwork and furniture. Upon his death in 1919, he stipulated that his house and its contents would become a museum, although Adelaide would be allowed to live here for the rest of her life. She died in 1931, and over the next four years the house was converted into a museum, opening to the public in 1935 as the Frick Collection.

Today, despite its changes in use, the exterior of the building from this view is not significantly different than it was when the first photo was taken more than a century ago. It still houses the Frick Collection, with the museum receiving around 300,000 visitors per year. Although not as large as many of the other major art museums in New York, it features a high-quality collection of paintings and furniture, including a good variety of works by the European Old Masters. The building itself is also an important work of art in its own right, and in 2008 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark in recognition of its architectural significance.

New York Public Library Main Entrance, New York City

The main entrance to the New York Public Library at 5th Avenue and 41st Street, around 1911-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2019:

As discussed in an earlier post, the main branch of the New York Public Library was completed here in 1911, on the west side of 5th Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. It was designed by the noted architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings, and it features an ornate Beaux-Arts exterior. Here on 5th Avenue, the main entrance consists of three archways, each flanked by a pair of Corinthian columns. Six statues stand above the entrance, and there are also others closer to the ground, including in the alcoves on the left and right, and the lions on either side of the stairway.

The first photo was evidently taken soon after the building was opened, because not all of the statues were installed by this point. The lions, designed by sculptor Edward Clark Potter, were here, but the statues in the alcoves—Beauty and Truth by Frederick William MacMonnies—had yet to be added. Above the entrance, a lonely statue stands on the far right side in the first photo, although it would later be joined by the other five figures.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, the sidewalk in front of the library is significantly more crowded, as is the skyline in the distance. However, the library has remained standing throughout this time, with hardly an exterior changes in this scene aside from the additional statuary. Over the years, the lions have become probably the most recognizable feature here at the main entrance, and they have since come to represent the library itself, even appearing in its logo. The building itself remains in use as one of the world’s largest libraries, and in 1965 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark because of its architectural and historical significance.

Hartford Library, Hartford, Vermont

The Hartford  Library on Main Street (now named Maple Street) in Hartford, around 1900. Image from The Old and the New.

The building in 2018:

This Queen Anne-style library building was constructed in 1893, in the center of the village of Hartford. It was built thanks to the efforts of several prominent locals, including Horace and Seraph Pease, who donated a parcel of land adjacent to their home, and Ephraim Morris, a woolen manufacturer who gave $5,000 to construct it.

The library was dedicated on September 16, 1893, in a ceremony that included remarks by former governor and Civil War Medal of Honor recipient Samuel E. Pingree. He was a Hartford resident and one of the founders of the library, and he also served on its board of trustees. His comments were followed by the keynote speaker, Dartmouth College President William Tucker, who spoke on “Uses of a Library.”

Upon completion, the library consisted of a reading room on the first floor, and a lecture room, known as Library Hall, on the second floor. At the time, it had about 2,000 books in its collections, but by the early 20th century it had grown to some 4,000. A total of 4,503 books were checked out from the library in 1908, and during its first 15 years in operation the library served 1,550 different patrons here.

The first photo was taken around this time, but very little has changed here in this scene more than a century later. It remains in use as a public library, with around 17,000 items in its collections today, and it is now one of four libraries in the town of Hartford. The exterior of the building has remained well-preserved throughout this time, and in 1994 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Four years later, it also became a part of the Hartford Village Historic District, which encompasses many of the buildings here in the traditional town center of Hartford.