Emerson Greenaway was the pre-eminent library consultant of his time. He had been the director of the esteemed Enoch Pratt Library of Baltimore, the director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, and director of the American Library Association.
He had been invited to Barre by librarian Dan Beavin in 1979 to consult on the future of the Aldrich Public Library. Beavin was the grandson of Joseph Wheeler, a famous library innovator from Baltimore, and the son of Mary Beavin, former librarian at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier.
By 1979, the Aldrich had assumed responsibility for the Barre Historical Society, and also provided space for the Barre Women’s Club. The collections of the historical society filled much of the top floor and the Women’s Club assumed most of the basement.
With no available space for additional growth of books, staff, or programs for the public, the time had come to consider adding an addition to the 1908 structure.
Six years earlier Beavin had recommended moving the Barre history collection elsewhere, but there was no alternative space available. Finally, he persuaded the well-known library consultant, Greenaway, who had a summer home in Brookfield, to offer his opinion. To the surprise of the board of trustees and the Barre community, Greenaway advised tearing the building down and erecting a new facility on the three-quarter acre lot.
“Some day you will have retrieval machines and maybe even a computer, and you’ll need space,” Greenaway told the board. The consultant went on, “Taking the long view, the soundest solution is to design and build an entirely new building that can be expanded if necessary. It should be remembered the original building costs the citizens nothing and for 70 years they have enjoyed it at little or no cost to the taxpayer.”
The board was stunned, but after thoughtful deliberation, discarded the idea.
Forty years later, Barre’s venerable public library has garnered new appreciation and respect.
In 2019 Bob Vila, America’s hands-on home-improvement expert, declared the “stunning classical revival building” one of the 25 most beautiful libraries in the United States (the same year that Reader’s Digest proclaimed Barre the friendliest town in Vermont).
The nomination of the Aldrich Public Library for the National Register of Historic Places in 2016 noted: “The Aldrich Public Library is locally significant as an excellent example of Classical Revival-style public building located in the civic and commercial center of the City of Barre, Vermont. Occupying a prominent site in the center of downtown and located opposite the Barre City Park, the building is approached via radiating pathways in a landscaped front lawn.”
In his will, Barre banker Leonard Frost Aldrich provided for a public library for the citizens of Barre City and Barre Town. The two municipalities were a single entity through much of his life and the library that bears his name embraces a vision of a single community of readers.
Pat Belding, Barre author and Aldrich children’s librarian, described Leonard Aldrich in her survey of Vermont libraries: “A native of Barre, he was a successful businessman, known for his good works. Especially interested in education he had served as trustee at Barre Academy and had helped oversee the construction of Goddard Seminary in 1869. He decided the best thing he could do for Barre was to build a library. Unfortunately, he died in 1898, ten years before the building was erected.”
Aldrich’s will stipulated that a board of trustees be appointed to manage the portion of his estate dedicated to providing for a library for the greater Barre community.
In accordance with his wishes, they contracted with Penn Varney, an architect from Lynn, Massachusetts. for the design. Varney had designed a Carnegie Library in Schenectady, New York, several years earlier, and he had recently prepared plans for a new public library in Melrose, Massachusetts. Although much larger than the proposed Aldrich Public Library, this building was rendered in the Classical Revival style.
The initial plans for the Aldrich called for a granite clad building, but instead, “buff-colored roman brick” was substituted in an effort to contain costs. Barre’s famous granite was used for trim, however, as indicated in the building’s National Register nomination “reflecting civic pride in the quality material and craftsmanship of the city’s most important industry.” The entrance incorporates more Barre granite in the ornamental columns, entry steps and, above the door the carved relief “The Passing of the Torch of Learning.”
As one surveys public libraries in towns around Vermont one may easily deduce that many were built in this same era – late 19th and early 20th century; and this boom in construction of libraries was concurrent with the Public Library Movement, which replaced private, subscription libraries with free public ones. A favorite contribution of philanthropists, the public library exemplified the “pull oneself up by the bootstraps” approach to self-betterment and continuing education. Many autodidacts of the time attributed their education and consequent success to hours spent in the reading rooms of their local libraries.
Wealthy donors, Andrew Carnegie in particular, gave library buildings and library endowments to their own towns and others where there was a promise of ongoing support. In fact, Carnegie donated 1,689 libraries in the United States alone.
In nearby Montpelier a similar bequest was challenged in a bitter legal dispute by John Hubbard, a nephew of the deceased donor, Fanny Kellogg Hubbard, which resulted in ill-feelings for many years after the Kellogg-Hubbard Library was constructed.
Fortunately for the Granite City, the completed Aldrich Public Library was a triumph for Barre City and Barre Town, and the new building was celebrated at a grand dedication ceremony in Sept. 22, 1908. To adorn the new building, a portrait of Aldrich by Ruth Payne Burgess was presented to the library. Burgess, a Montpelier native and friend of Thomas Waterman Wood, summered at Redstone in Montpelier with her husband John. The library’s notable features were described in Pat and Jack Belding’s compendium of Vermont libraries.
“An elaborate entryway leads to the main floor with its original oak furniture and woodwork, classical columns, and two skillfully finished fireplaces. Above the rear bookstacks is an opaque glass floor that intrigues and delights young patrons. The first floor looks much the same as when the library was built, except for the electric lights that replaced gas fixtures, and the open stacks, originally closed off by wooden gates connected to the imposing circulation desk,” it was noted.
Although Aldrich died before ground could be broken for his gift, the trustees contracted leading builders, woodworkers and landscape architects to participate in the two-year long project. The bricks were made in Waterbury, the interior finish was under the direction of W.H. Graves of Wells River, and a temporary stone shed was erected on site to prepare the granite fittings. The landscaping was designed by Dana Dow from Massachusetts. Dow had planned the grounds for the Joseph Smith Memorial in South Royalton, as well as Hubbard Park in Montpelier.
The architectural historians of the National Register of Historic Places describe the library’s more striking features with great erudition: “The entry doors are framed with granite embellishment including Doric pilasters, a granite frieze, and a large semi-circular arch containing a granite sculpture in the tympanum. The carving represents “the passing of the torch of learning” and includes a carved wreath at the center, two hands passing a lit torch and an open book below. The top of this arch is finished with a prominent keystone and with leafy scrollwork.
“Centered above the entry is a large rectangular window with a shallowly-arched upper rail and trimmed in granite with a prominent keystone. This window is divided into six parts: a central rectangle with an arched top matching the arch of the overall window, flanked by narrower panes on each side and with concave curved tops. Above these three panes is a circular pane with distorted rectangular panes on either side filling in the remaining space.”
William Jackson, a Montpelier contractor, faithfully executed Penn Varney’s design and their collaboration resulted in a small masterpiece at the junction of Washington, Elm, and Main streets. In the library’s nomination for inclusion in the National Register, the level of detail in the description of the exterior is instructive and enlightening. There is consideration of variations in the courses of brick used to create pleasing visual details as well as differences in window treatments that make the building more interesting.
What is less obvious to the casual passerby is that an addition was added to the building in 2000.
Readily apparent when one enters the structure, the expanded exterior was constructed from “the same sized Roman brick laid in a running course with grey mortar,” evoking the original construction. Under the rubric “Statement of Significance,” the nomination checks the box indicating, “property embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or represents the work of a master, possesses high artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components lack individual distinction.”
Given the importance of Leonard Frost Aldrich’s gift to Barre City and Barre Town, the response to Emerson Greenaway’s 1979 recommendation to tear the building down was met with strong criticism.
Barre architect Donald McKnight wrote a lengthy defense of the library that was published in The Times Argus: “The existing library building is,” he wrote, “quite simply, a civic treasure. Together with the churches and other civic buildings encircling the park, the Aldrich Public Library is an integral part of the best of Barre’s urban landscape.”
McKnight acknowledged the pressing space problems facing the library and offered a prescient solution: “We can envision an addition at the rear of the building that could add as much as 10,000 square feet on two or more levels. With some imagination it could gracefully complement the existing structure and through the juxtaposition of the old and new, create a building that is more than just the sum of its parts.”
Thankfully, the trustees exercised prudent judgment and the expanded library envisioned by McKnight became a reality – albeit 21 years later. Dan Beavin moved to the Vermont Department of Libraries in 1979 and he was replaced by a Barre native.
Paul Heller is a Barre historian and writer.