Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Celebrating the Gift of a Library

Charlotte Canelli is library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin. For photographs and excerpts from articles written about the building of the Morrill Memorial Library, visit the Digital Archive of the History of the Morrill Memorial Library.

When George Morrill lost his daughter to disease, he decided to build a monument in her memory. Sara Bond Morrill was a young woman of only 23 years. She was on a pleasure trip to Florida when she contracted typhoid and died on March 7, 1895. She was educated and refined. In George Morrill’s own words, she “was an intelligent and sensible woman.”

George Morrill did not merely plan to memorialize Sarah with a carved statue, a corner park or a stately boulevard. He built an entire institution in her name.

This esteemed building was and is the Morrill Memorial Library, a “grand and lofty place”. It was built near the junction of two main thoroughfares in Norwood - Washington and Walpole Streets. In 1895 the library sat directly in front of what was then Norwood’s high school and overlooked “one of the busiest and most prosperous manufacturing towns in New England.” To the left, its grounds adjoined the then Congregational Church.

“Located on a commanding eminence … it seems as if a better fit for a library building could hardly have been selected.” A broad sweeping lawn and curved walk led to the library steps from Walpole Street. (When first built, the library was half its current size. The front half of the building, its current entrance and side wings which bring it down to Walpole Street, was added in 1965.)

When George Morrill, a wealthy ink manufacturer in Norwood, decided to erect the library in Norwood in his daughter’s memory, I assume that he traveled to Augusta, Maine where architect Joseph Neal designed a library in that state’s capital. The library in Augusta was also built in the memory of someone with dreams of “study and mental improvement.” When local attorney and reader Llewellyn Lithgow died in 1881 he left a bequest of $20,000 to the city of Augusta. The trustees of the then Literary and Library Association in Augusta then began raising more funds. They hired architect Neal and the Lithgow Public Library was opened in 1895.

Unlike Augusta, however, the trustees and members of the Norwood Public Library did not have to raise any necessary funds. George Morrill himself simply hired Neal to design a library nearly identical to the beautiful Lithgow Library. He purchased land at Walpole and Beacon streets and construction began on that property. In January 1898 the lovely building was finished (at a cost of approximatelyl $75,000) and the library’s shelves were filled with approximately 10,000 books. It was opened officially on a cold and snowy day. In the atrocious weather, 200 people gathered as the library was dedicated as the Morrill Memorial Library in Sara Bond Morrill’s name.

State Representative Francis O. Winslow read from his speech that day. “Today we receive a library edifice, the gift of our honored townsman, George H. Morrill. Yesterday [the library] was his. Today it is ours. It is ours to possess as a sacred trust, for the use and benefit of those now living in the town and their children. It is given, without reservation and without limitation, except that it shall be ever devoted to literary and educational purposes. It is a gift of love to the people.”

Norwood’s public library was said, at the time (by the state librarian), to be “the finest of its size in the country.” It was erected of sturdy Norridgewock granite from Maine and the exterior was elaborately carved and etched with the names of ancient and contemporary authors and lovers of learning. Its interior was woodworked in mahogany. Exquisite transom lights in the large and spacious reading and book rooms were crafted of stained and leaded glass. Two elaborate bronze lamps graced the outside entrance and four beautiful fireplaces were placed on the center walls of four rooms. Morrill himself said “There was nothing shoddy about [my daughter, Sara] and there will be nothing shoddy about this building.”

For over half a century this fine building served its community well. Built to house 13,000 volumes it became far too small for its growing community. In 1928, a decade when the Norwood Town Hall and the Norwood High School were built, the three-story Plimpton wing was erected at the rear of the library. This was also a gift of the Morrill family, this time from another of George’s daughters, Alice Morrill Plimpton.

In the 1940s and 1950s attempts were made to enlarge the crowded and cramped building. Plans were successful in the next decade and in 1965 the building was doubled in size. (When the additions were built in 1928 and 1965, granite was once again secured from the same quarries in Maine.)

By the end of the 20th Century, the collection of over 100,000 books was once again too cramped, the library’s furnishings outdated and staffing stations inefficient and crowded. The trustees and supporters of the library planned a renovation that not only reallocated space but that restored the building to its original glory. (In 1965 and 2001 this was accomplished with state, town and foundation funding.) In June of 2001 the building was reopened and rededicated.

On June 26, 2011 the library will hold a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the 2001 renovation. The library will be closed for normal library services on that Sunday afternoon from 2-4 pm but will instead be open for visitors to join together for music and refreshment. Entertainment and crafts will be available in the children’s room and librarians will lead tours throughout the building’s three floors.

Much like those years of 1898, 1925, 1965 and 2001, visitors are welcome to the library to celebrate the Morrill Memorial Library, the original gift of an institution and building in which George Morrill would still take great pride.