Norfolk is a small village in the rural northwest corner of Connecticut, the setting for a classy summer music program sponsored by Yale University. The other day while driving through, I stopped to admire the town’s library, a fine old structure that really catches your eye from the road.
The building expresses the essence of that vibrant period of late nineteenth century American architecture when the sleek new Shingle Style was shaking off the excesses of Queen Anne. The second floor is clad in reddish tile shingles stretched tight over a curved bay. Its fish-scale shingles sit atop a rusticated first story of brownstone. You can see in the building’s strong front gable facing the street signs of the struggle underway at the time between the old verticality and the new horizontality that was just coming into vogue.
But the building is remarkable for more than its façade. This is the most perfectly preserved nineteenth-century structure, outside and in, that I have ever seen. Apart from a small 1985 addition that houses a children’s space, it looks and functions exactly as its architect must have originally envisioned, right down to the circulation desk. What is notable, of course, is that the architect envisioned it all in 1888 –a full decade before the Spanish American War!
That lengthy a period of virtually unmodified existence for an American building is extraordinary in and of itself, but especially so for one that has had constant community use and that has been outside the purview of a preservation-inclined institution, such as a university. This is just a small town library. It has no doubt been subjected over the years to reams of well-intentioned suggestions from citizens pushing for efficiencies: acoustical ceilings to reduce heating costs; smaller windows to limit heat loss; fluorescent lighting to save energy; easy-to-maintain vinyl floor tiles to simplify cleaning; metal siding to save on painting; utilitarian new space for meetings, among other thoughtful proposals. Such relentless civic input has been brought to bear on libraries and older buildings nationwide – making many of them now ill-proportioned and altogether strange to behold.
The Norfolk Library has resisted all that. A turn-of-the-century suffragette could be transported to the present day, walk into the library to check out Susan B. Anthony’s latest opus, and notice not a single thing amiss. How can it have performed so important a function and yet remain unchanged in appearance from all the way back to before the advent of the telephone?
Reason number one is that Isabella Etheridge, patroness of the library, had the wisdom to seek out one of the very best architects of her day, in Hartford, Connecticut, and to provide for him a clear vision and an ample budget. Her intention was to give the library as a memorial to her parents and as a place where citizens of Norfolk could have cultural gatherings. She chose George Keller, who by 1888, the year when he designed the first phase of the Norfolk library, was already established as a designer of important churches and memorials, including the Civil war Memorial at Gettysburg – the very one President Abraham Lincoln commemorated in his famous address.
Plainly, Keller knew what he was doing. James Gambrel Rogers later would become famous for designing Sterling Library at Yale as a “Cathedral of Learning.” Keller had done the same thing forty years earlier in Norfolk, but in a more intimate scale. Who knows, perhaps Rogers was inspired by Keller’s library?
Keller’s little basilica in Norfolk may lack an impressive dome or a tower, but it has marvelous vaulted ceilings through which he conveyed esteem for the wide knowledge that books would bring to Norfolk – a remote place at that time. His first phase was a modest nave that had two stories of wooden stacks along either side. His second phase, which followed in 1911, completed the parti with the addition of a transept and chancel and more stacks, all beautifully built in fine red oak. So, put simply, the architect designed an absolutely beautiful building here. Its exterior is handsome and welcoming, and its interior is startling in its perfection. The combination of warm wood and bright plastered walls takes your breath away. Who would want to change something so perfect?
Keller also had the good sense and the budget to use really durable materials (stone, wood, and plaster), and they have stood the test of time. From what I can tell, only the building’s original Spanish tile roof has been lost to the ages, replaced by asphalt shingles that were well-selected for color and installed with skill.
It is noteworthy, too, that Keller’s design is practical. His circulation desk is sensibly located in what would be the narthex, at the entry of the nave. His gathering area works well in the transept, where the cultural meetings Etheridge had envisioned could be minimally disruptive to people searching through the stacks. A meeting was under way on the day I visited the building, and I found it easy to enjoy the building despite it. Also, Keller’s big windows infuse the space with natural light, making the stacks comfortable for reading.
My conclusion, then, is that the Norfolk Library’s remarkable longevity lies in the sheer beauty, durability, and practicality of its design. It is a building that people over many generations have felt passionate about. I believe the building’s longevity also can be traced to the wisdom of patroness Isabella Etheridge, a smart lady who selected a really good local architect and who gave him inspiration and the budget to match.