Woog’s World / New library exceeds expectations
In 1986, the new Westport Library opened. Big and bold, it sat across the Post Road from the old one.
Therein lies a story.
Our first library dates back to 1886. According to Woody Klein’s history of Westport, citizens donated books, magazines, newspapers and money for a reading room on the second floor of the Hurlbutt Building on State Street (now called the Post Road), between Taylor Place and the Saugatuck River. Books could be checked out only on Tuesdays and Fridays.
In 1908, the library moved to bigger digs across the street. Morris K. Jesup — who made his fortune in the railroad business — donated land at the corner of State and Main streets, plus $5,000, to build a handsome new building.
The dedication ceremony included Gov. Rollin P. Woodruff and members of the Jesup family. Morris Jesup was not there; he had died four months earlier.
The Morris K. Jesup Memorial Library was “ornate, symmetrical and beautiful.” The words “Open to All” were etched above the entrance.
As Westport grew, so did its library. In the postwar, go-go 1950s it expanded westward. Stacks were added to a large room. A well-regarded art clipping file served the many illustrators and artists now living in town (and many others working at Famous Artists School, across the river). The children’s library on the second floor hummed with activity after school and on weekends.
By the 1980s, it was clear the library had outgrown its cramped, overused space. In 1984, Allen Raymond, president of the board of trustees, announced plans for a new building next to Jesup Green.
There were only two problems: the site, and the funding.
The proposed location was landfill. For years, it had served as the town dump. Some Westporters worried about the stability of the land and the methane underneath.
The Westport Taxpayers Association also opposed using town funds for part of the $4.5 million project. They gathered enough signatures to force a referendum. After an acrimonious battle, the new library was approved.
Value Line founder Arnold Bernhard donated $300,000 and had the entrance plaza named for him. James McManus, president of Marketing Corporation of America, had the main meeting room named in his honor. Lucille Lortel, founder of the White Barn Theater, was another major contributor.
Longtime civic volunteer Ralph Sheffer shepherded the new library to completion. In early September of 1986 — exactly 100 years after that first reading room began — the 300,000-square foot building was ready.
I remember that celebration. Westporters toured the modern facility, oohing and aahing. It was big. It was fresh. And — I thought, not unlike the kid watching the emperor without any clothes — it was weird.
I stood on the narrow balcony, gazing down on the main floor. Stacks filled the central area. It seemed like an enormous waste of prime space. The new library looked just as cramped as the old one.
As I walked around, I thought: What a great spot. It’s right next to the river. Why are the windows so small?
It took more than a decade to right those architectural wrongs. In 1998, renovations added over 50,000 square feet. The main floor opened up dramatically. New windows and reading rooms brought the river closer, visually.
Under director Maxine Bleiweis, the library flourished. The DVD collection, cafe, gift shop, vibrant programming, “Booked for the Evening” fundraiser, MakerSpace — all were developed or grew under her creative, loving watch.
But more was needed. The 20th-century library was not equipped for the 21st century, which had already rushed in.
She began, and her successor Bill Harmer completed, a transformation project that makes our Westport Library into the building it might have been, back in 1986.
The new, new, new library — as opposed to its first two Jesup Green iterations — truly works. A much-needed entrance on the green itself orients it toward downtown — makes it an anchor, really. Huge windows, a reimagined plaza and we-invite-you-to-hangout-here steps do the same with the Saugatuck River.
But it’s inside that the transformed library truly shines. A giant pyramid (think Times Square) fills the center hall. A versatile stage, with state-of-the-art audio and video, will inspire programming opportunities we haven’t even dreamed of. New meeting rooms, an expanded cafe and wonderful children’s library are added benefits.
Of course, there are still plenty of books. And everything else a 21st-century library needs.
The grand opening is this Sunday (June 23, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Be sure to go, or get there whenever you can.
In 1986, the new library underwhelmed me. Three-plus decades later, the new new one has exceeded even my highest expectations. See you there!